Books & Art

This New York-Based Filipino Artist Is Carving Out His Place in the Pop Art World

The hedge fund founder-turned-artist is breaking free from the burden of expectation.
IMAGE DF ART AGENCY, SEAN GO
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There's no one way to becoming an artist. But anytime someone with six college degrees, encompassing the disciplines of economics, law, business, geography, and real estate, suddenly becomes an artist full-time, he must be asked: how did he end up here?

"As cliché as it sounds, life is too short not to fulfill your passions and to dream big, even if the journey for you is unconventional," said Sean Go.

Born and raised in Manila, Go was sent to the United States to broaden his horizons. Now, he's making it as an artist in New York. Suffice to say, he has. He went to the University of California, Berkeley, Emory University, Columbia University, and the Fashion Institute of Technology, and even founded a hedge fund. The Filipino artist is in the process of completing a Master of Art degree, too.

But drawing has been a passion of his since childhood. A death of one of his closest friends triggered his art era, too.

"With tragic events comes thoughtful reflection," he says. Go's young life has also been shaped by his grandfather's own art collection, which has works from Filipino modernists and contemporary artists like Ang Kiukok, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, Solomon Saprid, Angel Cacnio, and Michael Cacnio.

His most famous piece is "The Playmouse," which provides us with some quirky commentary on how Disney can truly shape our perceptions of beauty (through cover girl Cinderella, in this case).

Photo by Sean Go Website.
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He calls himself a "pop appropriation" artist who is mostly influenced by pop art gods Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jeff Koons. These artists tackle much of the same themes that Go does: capitalism, consumer culture, celebrity, and love, among others, which come to define the modern identity.

"A pop artist for me makes the most fun type of art," he claimed. "This style, reminiscent of comics, anime, and early corporate ads, makes me stay true to myself and my background, as my strength is drawing anime and because I spent a large chunk of my life in the corporate world."

The artist's palette is vibrant and his characters are whimsical, coming straight out of comic books and old Disney shows. He considers them "extended metaphors for our lives." Through humor, irony, and satire, he hopes to communicate his own ideas about the world. His layers of gestural abstraction are characterized by splatters, scribbles, and flat-brush strokes. Present in his paintings are Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben Day dots and Basquiat’s exposure of internal organs. Good artists copy, great artists, well, appropriate (the actual line from Pablo Picasso goes, “good artists copy; great artists steal”).

The painting "Halo-Halo," we can say, draws parallels from the physical and social aesthetics of the dessert and the videogame Halo. "This piece is also a greater representation of how, regardless of your cultural, social, and economic background, shared fun is always a unifying experience," he noted. It's with pieces like these that Go channels celebrity and nostalgia into his work, much like his pop art idols. Warhol had the Campbell's soup series while Jeff Koons had his "Bread With Egg."

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Photo by Sean Go Website.

"I believe my artwork is the next dynastic progression in this field of readymade pop appropriation art, but with a Pinoy flavor," he added.

Art will always be an exploration of the human condition, and Go does this in the most child-like of ways, so he says. Oddly enough, when you first look at him, you're greeted by a big dude with long hair. Think an Asian Adam Driver (Kylo Ren). This, at least, is something a lot of people have pointed out to him. It's a vibe that he's come to own, actually.

But he's not afraid of breaking pre-concieved notions in his work nor is he afraid of screwing up. "I hold my tools like a child, intentionally to 'screw up' with imperfect lines, outlining mistakes, or misplaced splashes. Errors create a sense of childlike vulnerability and wonder, and I think create subconscious and conscious nostalgia of being free spirited and unburdened by worldly concerns."

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At this point, Go's pieces has been well received. He has already had multiple solo and group exhibits in his short career. His work has appeared at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan, New Museum and Art Space in Jakarta, Indonesia, as well as showcases at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Later this year, his paintings will be exhibited at the first-ever Modern and Contemporary Art Festival in Manila.

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Of course, we love asking our artists about the creative process. We are all shaped by different experiences, emotions, techniques, identities, and interactions, after all. Go's is what he would describe as a "multifaceted approach" although he does concede that he can be erratic and spontaneous. He relies on a certain child-like inquisitiveness to create new pieces.

"It comes to me when I am immersed in some other activity, often listening to music, dreaming, showering, working out, or consuming other forms of art including TV, Broadway shows, or walking around an art museum."

The pronouncement of his Filipino roots is apparent in his work, too. Pieces like “Captain America’s Jeepney,” which is adorned with blissful symbolism of the inherent Filipino psyche, and “Halo Halo,” a whimsical symphony of one of the most loved and favorite Philippine desserts, come from a reconciliation with the post-colonial.

"The colonial mindset is a way of thinking where we think foreign products, services, and standards of beauty are superior to Filipino ones. The most obvious way in which Filipinos get only the remains or 'unwanted' components are in food for example, where dinuguan, chicken feet, and even our beloved sisig are made up of animal leftovers. I try to challenge, question, and bring into center themes that draw on this inferiority complex, self-love, and mixed-identity," Go told Esquire Philippines.

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The first thing we notice, born our of westernization, in “Captain America’s Jeepney” might be Steve Rodgers and the World War II military vehicles. They are inherent to realizing the impact of America's cultural wave has on our people. It can say a lot about how the concept of the "American dream" can be a pitfall of our post-colonial selves. When we look at this piece, as Filipinos, we cannot deny the familiarity we have with this imagery. Is that a good thing? 

Photo by Sean Go Website.

What do you think Peter Pan, Tinkerbell, and Captain Hook are talking about in "Tanduay Neverland"?

Photo by Sean Go Website.
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We have to travel beneath the surface of his colors and forms to grapple with his ideas. In the case of "Pumba Tocino," the painting is a metaphor of sorts for the "transferability" of western products into Filipino cuisine. It's actually inspired by the song "Be Prepared" from The Lion King, Go pointed out. The painting toys with the nuances of the character of Pumba as, well, tocino meat. Go also hoped to communicate here how the colonial mindset of the Filipinos exists subconsciously in what they eat.

One of his newest pieces, "Terra Cotta Mickey," on the other hand, is a critique on Disney characters and their roles as so-called soldiers of battle, culture, and revenue generation. It's somewhat reminiscent of Warhol’s "Marilynx100" and Koons' "Triple Elvis" as they are all a commentary on mass media, technology, fine art, and pop culture.

Go, for the most part, is just getting warmed up. More importantly, he's letting it all come to him. "It will be a long road and I will work tirelessly to reach my goal, but I will remember to also enjoy the journey, keep things organic, and not rush processes."

For now, let's just let the artist work.

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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the assistant section editor of Esquire Philippines.
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