If Ivan Acuña’s name and painting style had not been celebrated and sought after in the art scene for over 20 years, the Sunday Times Magazine would have considered him a top chef on the day this interview took place.
That was the scene: instead of sitting down to answer questions, Acuña magically conjured a portable stove and skillet out of thin air in this gorgeous drawing room of an old New Manila mansion.
“I cook!” he announced cheerfully, “and we will eat!”
Acuña apparently just bought the property during the pandemic and was still deciding which antique pieces to keep or discard. At the same time, part of his impressive Filipino Masters collection sat on sofas, chairs and floors, waiting to be hung on the walls.
Acuña then started going through some grocery bags he had when he got to the appointment and eagerly unpacked his ingredients. For the next 15 minutes he worked on the stove, which must have been on top of an ancient Narra table.
The abstract artist, best known for his Metal Scapes series, says he only paints what he pleases and believes it’s his honest, personal and uncomplicated approach to creating art that makes his work accessible to everyone
Acuña’s hands looked happy and utterly relaxed, moving gracefully within his solid frame as he added ingredient after ingredient to the hot, steaming pan. And as he moved into what from afar looked like a medley of soft, colorful ribbons and shapes, he looked like the famous abstract expressionist he is again. Using a spatula for a brush and a pan for a canvas, he was soon serving up beauty on a plate.
Who would have thought that seafood pasta could look like a work of art?
A visual artist indeed, even when he cooks, Acuña doubles once again as the best-kept secret chef the first time his divine 10-minute pasta dish evokes a burst of colorful flavors in your mouth.
Well, this whole scene is worth documenting extensively because it encapsulates who and what makes this celebrated contemporary artist what it is.
Ivan Acuña is a rock star. He’s a rock star who does what he pleases and he does it to the max. Acuña lives life as big as his wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling paintings, known to hang in the country’s best-appointed building lobbies. He has a deep passion for his art, but never lets it consume him.
That’s why he cooks like a chef du jour whenever he wants, revs up his motorbike when the wanderlust hits, coolly runs various successful businesses and investments like a carnival juggler, and dives in to meet as many interesting people as possible.
Acuña is a rock star because although he has a great passion for his art, he refuses to be consumed by it and to turn to the quintessential artist personality.
“Hindi ako yung artificial art na may sarili silang mundo at sila-sila lang,” he declared bravely. “Ako, my art is for everyone. i live in the world I feel honored, satisfied and happy if my painting falls into the hands of a renowned art collector or a first-time art buyer. So I’m a sociable person, so it should be with my works.”
Guitar man to lens man
Ivan Acuña could quite literally have become a rock star if his deep passion for the visual arts hadn’t lured him away from his guitar. Believe it or not, he started the College of Music at the University of the Philippines in the mid 80’s.
A carefree guitar major, it took a concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where his group shared the stage with a top Spanish guitarist, to convince Acuña he should go elsewhere.
“It was a free concert and a free concert na nga, wala pang nanood!” he remembered in disbelief. “I said to myself: ‘Wala yatang future ditto, teka muna’, but I still play the guitar to this day whenever I feel like it. Mostly classical guitar,” he said.
When he switched to fine arts, his interest in aesthetics was sparked by his friendship with Alex Baldovino, son of famed Filipino photographer Dick Baldovino. Senior Baldovino also happens to be the nephew of Acuña’s potentially greatest art influence, Filipino national artist Jose Joya.
From then on, Acuña, thriving in his new environment, wanted nothing more than to work in the visual arts.
“I started out in photography and was very close to Alex’s father. So in 1988 I was fortunate enough to finally work with Mr. Dick Baldovino.”
Acuña, the first choice of national artists for the publication of their illustrated books, was delighted when Baldovino was commissioned to photograph Art Philippines: A history, 1521-present by Juan Gatbonton, Jeannie Javelosa and Lourdes Ruth Roa. Published by The Crucible Workshop in 1992, it is now considered one of the most comprehensive books on Philippine art history.
Acuña’s photographs were last featured in Bencab, the illustrated book by national artist Benedicto Cabrera, published in 2002.
Never one to limit himself to any interests or aspirations, Acuña finally felt it was time to explore what he had been doing quietly throughout his career as a professional photographer and threw himself into painting.
Of course, Acuña’s current and ongoing success as an abstract impressionist has also come about unconventionally. Although he believed in good timing despite his carefree nature, he had hidden canvases with big, bold and colorful strokes in his studio well past the ’80s, aware that the Filipino art scene was not yet ready to embrace contemporary art estimate.
“At that time, figurative art was dominant and I knew that abstract impressionism wasn’t going to survive,” explained Acuña.
The social animal that he is, Acuña had a diverse circle of friends who would play a key role in revealing his captivating and awe-inspiring brand of art.
“Usually a typical artist in the Philippines looks like this: they go to a gallery to apply to be an in-house artist, or a curator looks for them if they’re lucky the gallery likes their work. But remember, a single gallery exhibits anywhere from 30 to 120 artists. In reality, you don’t sell because you can’t sell it if you can exhibit once a year or even every two years,” explained the sociable painter.
“What happened in my case is that I was fortunate that my environment was outside of a typical artist’s environment. ‘Di ba was usually an artist who pag nag-opening, naka-upo lang, then lalapit yung may-ari ng gallery and a young curator nag-invite ask buyers to get acquainted with the artist.”
Shaking his head, Acuña continued, “Ako Hindi, Baliktad. I invite buyers to my exhibition because I know them all. I don’t need a curator because Ako Yung Nasa Harap greets the guests.”
Ivan Acuña is undeniably a rock star in Filipino art as a major force in Abstract Impressionism, and yet his unconventional way of traversing life and living big can be viewed in the same way.
His unconventional approach to marketing and, more importantly, buying his work has resulted in exhibits being mounted at luxury car dealerships such as Porsche, Ford, Lotus and Ferrari.
Yes, Acuña is also a collector of vintage cars and expensive carriages, so everything worked out.
He was also very close to the interior design gems that people like Budgi Layug started selling his artwork with in 2001. Suffice it to say that Acuña’s fame sped faster than his sports cars, to the point that his name and his art came to the forefront of many architects and designers such as Gil Cosculuela and Anton Mendoza for their building projects both nationally and internationally.
Just do it
“Like I said before, I’m just lucky enough to have grown up in Makati, which had the purchasing power when I first started selling my artwork. You know how the typical artist has to go to a gallery before they can go to the collector? Ako, I’m already with the collector because they shaped my environment,” Acuña summarized.
“Fortunately, I’ve done well with abstract as well, and I feel good about doing abstract, so I like to make it big,” said the artist, whose largest work to date, measuring 16ft by 16ft, hangs magnificently at the Diamond Hotel.
Acuña’s abstract style is familiar to both the privileged and the working class, with many large establishments displaying his pieces on their walls.
However, given the unconventional path to his success, Acuña made it clear that he does not mean that artists without access to privileged circles will have hopeless careers.
For this rock star whose outlook on life is to just enjoy whatever he’s doing as much as he can, Acuña’s advice might seem unorthodox, but he promises that if you put it another way for a minute, it’ll make sense tries.
“Today’s young artists think too deeply about making art, lalo na yung tinatawag nila na surealismo. The way I see it and the way I do it, making art doesn’t have to be complicated,” Acuña suggested.
The UP Fine Arts graduate, published photographer and sought-after artist is a 100 percent sociable person and a far cry from the archetypal moody artist persona – which has served him well in all his endeavors.
“I paint for myself and create what makes me happy or what moves me, that’s all. And I think that’s why my art is accessible and people love my paintings.”
Call him a rock star or a rebel, but like it or not, Ivan Acuña is internationally revered as a key figure in the country’s Abstract Expressionist movement. And yet he likes to use the same hands for his art of peeling garlic, chopping onions and peeling seafood when he’s in the mood for his signature pasta. What’s more, he enjoys sharing his delicious creations with friends old and new, just as much as he enjoys offering his visual creations to everyone.
“You don’t have to be too serious to be a successful artist. If you open yourself up to people – other than just quoting, unquote ‘artworld’ na may sariling mundo – you will see that great things can happen. “