From hidden gem to the toast of New York

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Luis Lorenzana was once one of the countless young artists who aspired to make it in the Philippine art scene. A self-taught artist, he never had any formal training, which is probably why the local galleries wouldn’t give him a show.

Lisa Guerrero Nakpil, Luis Lorenzana, Michelle Yun, and Ken Hakut

“It was very discouraging,” he said. “And I was ready to give up. I stored the paintings I did and focused on my work as a staff writer for one of the senators.”

With his background in public administration and exposure to the activities in the Philippine Senate, Lorenzana developed a surrealist style that captures the character of Philippine culture and society. They almost seem satirical.

“I did a lot of works between 2005 and 2008, but they had no market value. They were never seen by the public. What was I to do with these paintings? Well, since no one in Manila seemed interested in them, I searched the internet for art galleries in the US. I sent proposals for art shows and photographs of the paintings to a few of them,” he said.

Much to the artist’s delight, a gallery based in San Diego, California sent a favorable response and approved his proposal. “The gallery chose the paintings they wanted to exhibit, and even paid for the shipping costs. Normally, it is the artist who has to shoulder the cost. I wouldn’t have been able to afford that,” he said.

‘Pinoy’; ‘El Romantico’

The San Diego show was successful, and Lorenzana had another show in New York City. Apparently, his visual style is more appealing to American art connoisseurs, especially to one avid New York-based collector who discovered pictures of Lorenzana’s works in the website of one of the galleries. Retired businessman Ken Hakuta is a patron of the arts and an advocate of Asian art in the US. He says he was intrigued by Lorenzana’s style and the meaning of his work.

“I was shocked and emotionally overwhelmed,” he said. “I had never seen such a fresh, powerfully raw and emotional display of art from one artist. The paintings reminded me of the works of Yoshitomo Nara and Jean-Michel Basquiat. They feature a brutal, cutting-edge social commentary that is applicable not only to the Philippines, but internationally, in the USA, Europe, Japan, and China.”

Hakuta was so impressed he contacted the gallery and inquired whether he could purchase the paintings. “They said they’ve all been sold. I told them to give me the contact information of the people who bought them. I want to buy the paintings from them,” he said.

Hakuta was only partly successful in his shopping spree. Some of the owners sold to him, while others refused to let go. The next step was for him to fly to Manila and get in touch with Lorenzana. The collector has been making regular visits to the Philippines to check out the art scene and shop for artworks that he can add to his extensive collection. He usually looks at the paintings of the less prolific artists. “What’s sad about the Philippine art scene is there are little opportunities for the younger artists. Filipino collectors and galleries tend to favor the same names, the established ones. There is a wealth of talent in Manila that has remained untapped,” he said.

Pity Party’; ‘Congrie’

The collector eventually met the artist, who was then in his early 30s. “He bought the entire collection, the paintings that had been in storage for so many years,” said Lorenzana, who was admittedly bewildered when he met Hakata and learned what his intentions were. “Prior to this purchase, the paintings didn’t have any value.”

Hakuta now refers to this acquisition as the Luis Lorenzana Archival Collection.  “The acquisition was imperative,” he explained. “Having the works dismantled and dispersed among various collectors would make it almost impossible to organize for a coherent exhibition. But with the acquisition, they remain together and therefore may be researched, viewed, and interpreted as a comprehensive whole,” he said.

The collection has attracted international attention from curators and art world professionals for its fresh aesthetic, witty social commentary, and its relationship to popular culture and timely political issues.

Being a patron of the arts, Hakuta is in close contact with Asian-Americans who work to promote Asian art. Among them is Michelle Yun, senior curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at Asia Society, New York. Established years ago, Asia Society is an educational organization tasked to promote mutual understanding and to strengthen partnerships between Asian people, leaders, and institutions and the USA in a global context. Its purpose is to provide insight, generate ideas, and promote collaboration in the field of arts and business, among others. A non-profit organization that receives funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Asia Society New York happens to have a museum.

Hakuta notes that it is still difficult to sell Philippine art in general to American audiences. “It’s still a struggle,” he admitted. “So what we’re doing is to group Filipino artists with other artists from Southeast Asian countries and promote their works as Southeast Asian art.”

But he’s happy to note that the advocacy has been given a major boost, what with the attention Luis Lorenzana has been getting.

Photographs courtesy of Tedrick Yau

See more of Luis Lorenzana’s work on Asian Dragon Magazine’s December 2016-January 2017 issue, available for download on Magzter.

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