“It looks like food,” Ernest Concepcion says, gazing hungrily at one of his most recent works—an abstract eruption of reds and yellows. “I want to eat it.”
Concepcion admits that his explorations in art are primarily guided by gigil. It’s an untranslatable Filipino word that can be roughly explained as an intense emotion, an urge to throttle someone or something. One can be gigil about a cute puppy or endless traffic jams. It’s a clenched-fist, gritted-teeth, trembling-jowls emotional state that finds one at the cusp of doing something unthinkable.
Like wanting to eat a painting, or buying a one-way ticket to New York with no plan and $700 in his pocket in 2001, a few months after 9/11.
“I just wanted to get out,” says Concepcion. “I was in my early 20s and adventurous. I wanted to prove to everyone that I could do it. So I went straight to the lion’s den to see if I could continue making art.”
Taking that leap was no small feat. Prior to leaving, Concepcion took up Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, experimenting with video art under pioneer conceptual artist Roberto Chabet. Going to New York meant being in a situation where he had no choice but to sink or swim. It meant crashing on his sister’s couch, juggling three jobs, and squeezing blood from what little time he had left in a studio he rented.
“I went back to drawing because I was broke. Nang-gigil ako mag-experiment because I wanted to prove that my work changes. It’s bound to develop. Especially in New York, if you’re not on your toes, matatabunan ka. In one city block, there are like, 50 artists. How do you stand out?”
Hard work and staying on his grind earned Concepcion a slew of residencies like the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Program and solo exhibitions in New York, Minneapolis, and Manila. In 2013, with the growing demand for his work stateside, Concepcion moved back to Manila for good. “I came back for practical reasons. Here, I have more time to spend in the studio.”
On the difference between the New York and Manila art scene, Concepcion speaks about government support, camaraderie, and competition. And while the Big Apple may be big, art shows find the same circle of artists regularly seeing and supporting each other. “Here, not so much,” he says, laughing.
Concepcion recounts a time when a friend messaged him on social media about another Filipino artist’s work that looked uncannily similar to his. “Some local galleries don’t know better. When I came home, biglang tumahimik. But the Manila art scene is young. I always think of it as a teenager: smart, know-it-all, but if you criticize it, biglang iiyak.”
As is, Concepcion doesn’t have time for trifles. He’s keeping busy and churning out works at a frightening speed, gearing up for a solo exhibit at 1335MABINI under the working title Just a Hint of Mayhem.
“I consider every show like a music album. The artwork are like songs,” says Concepcion. “I’ll put together nine or 10 works. There’s going to be a sleeper hit in there, an old favorite, a classic, or something that I don’t really like but I keep coming back to it for some reason. That’s why I don’t repeat my old stuff.”
He says he’s started “deconstructing” his imagery. Concepcion shows off an artwork of the House of Representatives session hall defaced with wild splotches of paint. “A lot of artists can paint really well. But to break it apart? That takes a lot.”
Just A Hint of Mayhem will be exhibited until May 20 at 1335Mabini. Visit 1335mabini.com for more details.