In conjunction with the 10th edition of Asia Contemporary Art Week, Owen James Gallery is holding an exhibition on Manila-based artist Dex Fernandez. The Southeast Asian artist is known for his eccentric expression through mixed media collages, murals, and sticker art. I had a chance to visit Owen and Isabel, the couple running the gallery to talk about Dex’s work and what drives them to the artists they seek.
GP: What is the story behind the gallery?
Owen: I studied art history as an undergraduate, working for several galleries shortly after moving to New York. At a certain point I wanted to go back to emerging art and younger artists that I had personal interest in, as opposed to what other galleries were showing. At the same time, Isabel moved here and we got married. She’s a children’s illustrator and we have this back and forth relationship between New York and Manila, which is partly what this gallery’s about.
When I decided to go back to young artists, I didn’t want it just to be the Brooklyn art scene. That’s why there’s a number of artists from Southeast Asia and there’s some from Europe. It’s growing and we’re still new, but I always wanted to have an international outlook, comparing and contrasting different parts of the world with different points of views. That’s why I’m doing it this way. We also always wanted to work together and so we created this space.
GP: How long have you been a children’s illustrator?
Isabel: A really long time now. I started when I was still in college so that was back in ’98. I mostly worked in the publishing industry in the Philippines and I moved here to work with New York publishers in 2008.
GP: With the artists that you show, do you always meet them in person beforehand?
Owen: Yes. I think it’s important when you find someone you’re interested in, to kind of follow them for a certain period of time and see how they develop over maybe a year or two. It’s important to see how someone works and how they think, as opposed to just looking at jpegs of the work itself. There are a lot of international artists so logistically it takes a lot of time to set everything up to make the work, ship the work, and prepare each show. That being said I’m always looking online, whether it’s exhibitions here, different spaces, gallery shows, collectives… I’m always making notes and keeping track. When I let everything sit and ferment, eventually things become clear as to who I gravitate towards. I don’t believe in showing one kind of material or subject matter. I think there’s too much out there, too many interesting things. And just like the people in different countries, I want the materials to be balanced and diverse. So that’s part of the consideration also as to why show one person over another.
Isabel: He’s lucky in a way, because I was already familiar with a lot of these people. I was involved in the art scene back home and knew a lot of people in the gallery business in Manila, and still do. So a lot of the artists we started with were already on my short list. And I kind of said to him, we should pay attention to these guys — they’re the younger ones, they’re very interesting.
Owen: Through Isabel I was introduced to a number of the first group of artist we’re showing, and I’ve been going back and forth to Manila since 2006. I’d start that process of following them and then meeting or getting in touch as the idea for the gallery itself built up, because it took a number of years to get to the point of opening a business.
GP: How would you describe the art scene in the Philippines compared to New York?
Isabel: I feel like it’s finally going global with the caliber of the work. I find it really exciting just because everyone’s exploring things that are truly important to them with a historical context, in contrast to a lot of the art I’ve been seeing lately, where it’s all “art school” art or art talking about art in New York, and I feel like that’s not really that interesting. Whereas if you’re talking about real social issues like colonization or global economics, gender issues, and various cultural and political control of governments… those sort of things where the issues are much deeper, I think that’s really fascinating.
Owen: I think the region as a whole has really developed in the last 15 years especially. The art world has become very global. Everyone knows that. But the growth and development of how artists are working in Southeast Asia has been rapid and like she said, it’s now really presentable on a global level. You also have art fairs in the region that are much more influential than they used to be in the past. You have the auction houses staking their claims, you have New York, American, and European galleries opening up in Hong Kong and Singapore… it’s happening very quickly.
I think what separates Manila from the rest of the region is that the speed is even more so. The artists work very fast. There’s an immediacy and vibrancy in the work, and that’s what Dex’s work is all about. It applies to a lot of the other artists. The market is extremely vibrant. So this group of artists, they’re doing show after show. And when it’s all sold out, they produce more. It’s never really been quite like that. There’s also more conceptualism to the work and a lot more mixed media. Thirty years ago it was kind of dry, figurative, and very social-realist, but it’s all changed. So it’s a really exciting time to be involved with the work. We believe very much in building the market for them here. Whether we’re building an awareness for one region or one particular artist, that’s where the joy comes from. The research, putting it together, and having these people to believe in.
Isabel: Yes, and finding that unique voice that’s totally fresh and not jaded.
Owen: Dex is a graffiti artist, a mixed-media artist, and it implies working really fast. He himself has an abundance of ideas and energy and his work shows that. It was great he had his residency here so that we could do the installation with the mural and the work so it becomes one overall thing. It’s not just pictures on a wall, it’s an environment. And he always wanted to do that. It’s representative of Manila, that energy and color, the playfulness, the urgency.
Isabel: I wouldn’t say it’s representative of the entire scene of Manila, because there are a lot of artists that are conceptual and very minimal, but definitely the people we work with.
Owen: I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed either. I’m not a Southeast Asian gallery. I’m a gallery that, like I said, shows both Eastern and Western cultures and have an interest in both. Where they complement or contrast, or have similarities and differences, that’s as much of an interest as to whether the artist is from Brooklyn or the Philippines. Sometimes I’ll show them individually, like Dex, or show them together. I think that’s part of the education.
Isabel: Our summer show was set around abstraction. We had really young Brooklyn artists and juxtaposed their work with older, more established work like Richard Tuttle, and so there was a contrast between working with the same materials and differences in reputation and regions. Owen really likes the dialogue between different textures, whether it’s the medium, region, or age.
Owen: I really like the process of curation. Some spaces might work with an artist and the artist produces the body of work and they go in and say, “Okay, this one, that one, and that one. Great. Now let’s put it up.” And I think it can and should be much more involved of a process. The gallerist should have an idea on their own of which aspects of the artist they want to highlight. It’s not just simply about throwing paintings on the wall and saying “It’s new!”
GP: It’s amazing you guys are focused on the social and progressive messages of artists and educating the community through your gallery. It’s a more intimate way of staying updated on the world apart from say, sensational news.
Owen: It’s funny, it starts a lot of conversations with people that doesn’t always have to do with art. It’s one of the joys of doing this. There’s a lot of things the work leads to or the artist’s situation leads to. In fact, what Isabel was saying about history, identity, and politics — that’s part of building the market.
GP: What made you decide on having a gallery in Greenpoint specifically?
Isabel: The area seemed to have a lot of illustrators already, so I thought it would be good for me to be here. And when we started looking at actual spaces it seemed to be the most reasonable in terms of traffic and the density we were looking for.
Owen: When I was looking around different neighborhoods, I liked the fact that Greenpoint is very central and still, there’s not a straight forward path to get here. That means the place isn’t over-run with people but there’s still a lot of people that do come. It’s a destination neighborhood and there is a gallery scene here, along with a lot of working artists’ studios, crafts people, woodshops, small businesses, tech companies… So it’s a nice mix of people, as opposed to certain other neighborhoods where you might have a lot more galleries but a lot less of everything else. I wanted to stand out a little bit and not get totally lost in the crowd so this offers a nice placement with like-minded people, but then there’s still things for people to do after they leave the gallery. It is low key but good energy, as far as neighborhoods goes.
Isabel: We thought about the kind of the community we wanted to surround ourselves with. Here the people are little bit more mature and it’s a good mélange of artists, business people, and also a lot food people. The small businesses here support each other and it’s a good climate for that.
Owen: And the kind of restaurants and bars that we normally like going to, they’re all here anyway.
GP: What are some of your favorite spots in the neighborhood?
Owen: Broken Land, Homecoming, Budin, Oak and Iron…
Isabelle: The Diamond, because they have really great veggie chili pies. Also Miss Kim’s because she has great bibimbop [laughs].