The Dark Side of John Lloyd Cruz

IMAGE At Maculangan

John Lloyd Cruz is amassing an important collection of Filipino contemporary art. OK, "amassing" might be preemptive a word for a habit he started forming less than two years ago, when he first tasted the heady high a successful art purchase can give. He’s a familiar face at openings and often hangs out with the artists, forming one half of the art scene’s odd couple with painter Romeo Lee. All of this is slightly less Pep-worthy than a Curtisian slap, of course, and probably another reason why he’s drawn to their reclusive world. 

One never really forgets he’s John Lloyd Cruz, matinee idol perennially pegged as the boy next door and goofball love interest, but he seems to meld comfortably in this other milieu where there are no paps, no handlers, no song-and-dance numbers, and where, in a reversal of roles, he becomes the fanboy. He is also fast becoming a Very Important Patron, yet still known only within the industry, because a cursory “did you know JLC is a big art collector?” to the girls next door yields surprise and confusion.

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We pay a visit to John Lloyd Cruz’s art collection, which is housed in a recently renovated apartment where the actor also happens to live. It’s the first place he’s owned since moving out of the family abode in Antipolo, and it’s a proper man cave with brick walls (red in the living area, white in the kitchen), industrial lighting, and art, art, art everywhere. 

Art is hung up on the walls and stacked on the floor, it fills every surface and crevice, in the form of paintings, sculptures, cut-outs, even toasted bread. The collection isn’t overflowing, not yet, it hasn’t reached Herb-and-Dorothy-Vogel or hoarder-like proportions, not yet. This is the starting collection of a guy who discovered art and dove deep into it.

A glimpse of John Lloyd's living room

“Last year, the past eight months I wasn’t doing anything,” Cruz explains. “Maybe commercial shoots once a month. Ang daming time talaga to go around galleries, openings. This year, medyo busy na. I’ll be at the gym, seryoso.” Laughs. He says there was an earlier attempt to “teach’” him about art, with the likes of Rowell Santiago the director, Louie Ocampo the composer, and Rico Hizon the news anchor trying to get him into the art appreciation game. 

“But it didn’t happen. Happy ako sa naging journey ko. I met the people I really wanted to bond with when it came to art.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Liz Uy had something to do with the start of his journey. She had mentioned the name Pow Martinez, and this immediately resonated with Cruz, who invited Pow over to his house and fed him sinigang while interrogating him on his artistic influences and icons. “I asked who he followed as an artist. He said, Romeo. So humaling kay Romeo. Naging item na kami.”

Cruz’s appreciation comes straight from the gut. That was Cruz’s ding! moment. What he likes is something unexplainable and visceral that speaks to the oldest parts of the brain.

A portrait of Mao Tse Tung and Chou En-lai, a collab by Lee and Manuel Ocampo, called "The Searching For Freedom Tour" (2003), oil on canvas

Cruz met Romeo Lee—also known as the King of Punk and a noted connoisseur of lo-fi  stereo systems—at the first Art Fair exactly a year ago. Several of Lee’s works hang prominently in Cruz’s apartment—drawings that have been described as humorously grotesque, a painting of Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai he collaborated on with Manuel Ocampo; not on display, the commissioned portrait that made the news online (with Cruz explaining that it didn’t fit in his car). Their bromance has resulted in gallery dates and late-night studio visits, but Cruz asserts that he doesn’t get influenced or swayed much by what other people suggest he should buy, even if they are the artists. In fact, the more he resists. He relies on only one thing—his instinctive reaction.

It was Manuel Ocampo who nailed and named Cruz’s taste. For a while, the actor couldn’t figure out why he likes what he does, and it actually bothered him because he wanted to label it and in effect know the reason why he collects. One night, Ocampo was having a conversation with Cruz’s (then) girlfriend, Angelica Panganiban, at an opening in Pablo, wherein he observed that while he looks for a cerebral connection to the art, Cruz’s appreciation comes straight from the gut. That was Cruz’s ding! moment. What he likes is something unexplainable and visceral that speaks to the oldest parts of the brain.

A piece by Jojo Legaspi

Maybe they access a place of unreconciled emotions, deep fears, or perverse fantasies, who knows. Maybe, as a mutual friend theorizes, Cruz’s widely suspected “dark side” manifests itself through the art that he buys. He is still being denied the challenge of portraying a sociopathic or even mildly sinister character, though he has made it clear that he wants to. So up on his walls go a large, brutal Jojo Legaspi of a woman stabbing her brains out; a Vic Balanon scene of environmental destruction; skulls in all manner and shape, Nikki Luna’s casts of guns. It is dark art, but that is not to say it has no beauty.

There are in fact many moments of captivating beauty, like the nude portrait of a woman by the late Onib Olmedo, who has been nominated for National Artist, an award that would surely bump up the value of this piece. Cruz is not approaching it that way, however.

A collaborative work of the artist-couple Mariano Ching and Yasmin Sison from their 2013 show at MO_Space called “Stacking Up.” 

“It’s worse than being in it for investment,” Cruz admits. “It’s not practical, when you acquire art from the gut.” Nikki Luna says, “He finds satisfaction in owning the piece and enjoys the art work. John is a good collector because he allows himself to experience the results of pure creativity. He likes the piece as it is, and I see he gives importance to the meaning and concept behind the artwork.” One of her recent sculptures, an antler mount, hangs among a tableau of other small-sized works, including a Ryan Villamael, a Manuel Ocampo, and a painting of a flying sheep his niece made, right next to an HR Ocampo.

While it may look like Cruz has embarked on an unhinged art-buying spree (he and Angelica just picked up four pieces from Silverlens’ ArtFlood benefit sale), he doesn’t actually end up taking home every piece he fancies. He still uses his intuition as a barometer of whether it’s a right fit for him. 

He is still being denied the challenge of portraying a sociopathic or even mildly sinister character, though he has made it clear that he wants to. 

“You look for that connection. Parang ako na-hahigh. May ganon na feeling and you leave the place happy.” There was an opportunity for him to obtain works by Chabet, who soon after died in April 2013 and is considered the father of conceptual art, not to mention the spiritual daddy of many of the young practicing artists today. Cruz viewed the works in MO_Space for around 30 minutes and put down a reservation on two of them before leaving. 

Pag alis ko, pag sakay ng kotse, parang nag drain ako. Pagod na pagod ako. Parang mali,” he recalls. After an hour, he texted the gallery assistant and let the pieces go. He likens the feeling to the sheer exhaustion after performing on a variety show. “With art you have to let it rest,” he advises. “If you’re not sure, let it rest, and then you decide.”

(Top) Mariano Ching’s Terror Twilight Series from October 2013; (bottom) toasted bread

 On this particular evening, it was Pow Martinez at the Manila Contemporary. Pow is one of Cruz’s favorite artists and has the distinction of having created the single large painting of blobby alien heads that hangs above Cruz’s yellow Togo sofa. He is also part of Manila Vice (an expansion of the Bastards of Misrepresentation), the collective exhibit Manuel Ocampo brought to Sète, France last year to much acclaim. 

It’s been a few years since I attended one of these events, but I wanted to see Cruz in action. Does he stealthily come in and take all the artwork in one fell swoop, does he quietly contemplate each piece from the appropriate viewing distance, or does he go there to party and have a good time with non-showbiz people?

A signed Damien Hirst lithograph.

He does a bit of everything—when I arrived he was already circulating with the gallery attendant, who was explaining the works of Jose Gabriel and Adrian Alfonso, two street artists who debuted their work in the little upstairs room. He then whisked himself downstairs, to be lost in the sturm und drang of booze- fueled gallery-goers and artists mingling among Pow’s Ren and Stimpy homages and colorful toilet-brush flower arrangements (which, I later learned, Cruz got one of).

Cruz is becoming his own quiet champion of Filipino art, just by opening up his home and sharing his collection with the world.

After giving up on the chance of buying any of the artwork myself (I was eyeing a small, within-my-budget drawing by Jose Gabriel, but JLC had already claimed it, along with five others) I went to look for the actor. He always had people in orbit around him, from curators to art enthusiasts, Gerry Tan to Manuel Ocampo and a red-headed German artist named Timo who had a freaky realistic Filipino accent. A good time was had by all, indeed. I remembered to ask Ocampo about his great vision for democratizing art, something Cruz had begun to tell me about the other night before he got interrupted, as he often does. Ocampo, as the ringleader of the merry pranksters of the local art scene, feels that said scene has become too insular and wants to shake things up. He envisions a public art performance, one that involves JLC; what he’s supposed to do is yet unclear, but incorporating him and other mainstream celebrities is meant to attract a wider audience and break down the barriers between fine art, pop culture, the street, and the masses.

Cruz seems both interested and apprehensive about the project, but it’s still too early to tell what form this collaboration will take. As it is, Cruz is becoming his own quiet champion of Filipino art, just by opening up his home and sharing his collection with the world. The cover of this very magazine will, hopefully, bring more people to discover all the artists and photographers who have freely collaborated in this issue—a back portrait of John Lloyd Cruz is still recognizably John Lloyd Cruz, and he himself was thrilled to be part of an MM Yu-Nona Garcia threesome, never mind that his face is unseen, and that his big ear is the most prominent feature.

An MM Yu—Nona Garcia collaboration

BACK AT HIS APARTMENT the night before, we watch as At Maculangan light-meters the artwork to be photographed. There’s a large negative-esque painting of a woman’s bent behind with her fingers threading through, titled "One Speed" by Kiko Escora. This was also the answer to the question of what hangs in his bedroom. “It’s very sensual. It takes a certain level of courage for a woman to pleasure herself,” Cruz says, and in the dark I can’t tell if he’s grinning and he can’t tell if I’m blushing. “It’s... inspiring.”

His love affair with art is in its giddy, stomach-sick stages, replete with undercurrents of sexual tension, and he’s a proud boyfriend who wants to show off: “I’m enjoying this discovery phase. You tend to buy more than you’re supposed to. The rawness is not going to happen again. Eventually you learn about your taste and style, and the rawness I have now will be gone.” Eventually he will refine his methods, he will spend more on fewer items, and he will eye things with a fuller knowledge that he is just starting to explore. His collection, a wide array of the things he likes, will start to become more focused as it becomes clearer how each work relates to each other, to art in context, and to himself.

A 1988 nude by Onib Olmedo

His love affair with art is in its giddy, stomach-sick stages,
replete with undercurrents of sexual tension,
and he’s a proud boyfriend who wants to show off 

Cruz says he can’t help but be in awe of renowned collector Paulino Que, whose collection he was invited to see in its entirety at a dinner Que hosted for family, fellow collectors, and artists. “Only two things could happen after this—either you stop collecting or you get inspired. Grabe, you will lose your head,” he raves. He acknowledges that he will never be able to match what Que has done. “But the learning is, you get to be happy with what you achieve on your own. I can dream as high as I want to, but I’m still grounded, I know my reality. It reflects my real life, outside my collection.” Outside of showbiz, too: John Lloyd Cruz, in real life, is a great lover of art. He is passionate and he is generous, and he’s a consistently good friend. He has an uncompromising side that hovers on the edge of darkness, where things are gritty, ungodly or just full of black humor—but what did you expect, still lifes of fruit?


 This article was originally published in the February 2014 edition of Esquire Philippines.


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Audrey N. Carpio
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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