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Dr. Joven Cuanang, Pinto and the doors of perception

Doctor of art: Dr. Joven Cuanang began his art collection with a book-piece on Antipolo by Manny Baldemor, then the doctor discovered Salingpusa. “Ten years from now,” he predicts. “One or several of them will be in the running for the National Artist.”

The doctor was in.

In the museum, that is. Yes, on that black Sunday when the nation got stunned by the punch to the Pac-man seen, heard and even felt all around the world. But Gloom was not home at the Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo as art patron, gallery/museum owner, culture stalwart and one of the foremost neurologists in the country, Dr. Joven Cuanang, jovially shared with us a feast of suman, coconut juice, bottles of SMB Light, and a lovely, lovely chat about the opening of the new wing of Pinto Art Museum on Dec. 16.

They call this part of the lot, the “house museum.”

For a reason.

The idea was to create a separate house-like museum, a monastery, or a sort of 1,000-sqm-chapel of art worship, call it what you will — and yet it should be integral to and unified with the entire museum upon the hills.

“When this lot was made available, we got it right away,” says Dr. Cuanang, who enlisted artist/gardener/interior designer Tony Leaño in designing the new wing. (Dr. Cuanang calls him a “polymath.”) The doctor wanted it this way: after visitors have had their fill of artworks (by the who’s who of Filipino contemporary art) in the main wing of the museum which opened in December two years ago, or at Pinto Art Gallery in the mouth of Silangan Gardens, they would be drawn into this side of the museum with its sprawling garden, monastic architecture and Filipiniana charm.

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A sort of homecoming.

“I think Tony outdid himself here,” Dr. Cuanang enthused. “This is an eight-month labor of love for him. And I have total confidence in him in terms of aesthetic decisions.”

He would meet with Leaño during weekends when the doctor went up to Antipolo, his usual routine. “Tony would say, ‘Manong, kailangan ko ng three ancient bells for the tower.’ So, ako ‘yung taga-hanap (laughs). Ang hilig ko talaga ay maghanap ng interesting pieces — such as plants or this old door from Vigan.” At the new wing, you could almost imagine being in a Mexican pueblo while watching the mariachi take a tequila break or waiting for a sighting of Diego Rivera and his posse.

Dig the contrast: the edifice itself looks as if blueprinted from history books, but the artworks and lighting fixtures are contemporary. “Tony got those (light casings). He constantly surprises me.”

The doctor and I walked on.

New works by Rodel Tapaya (his take on the Lam-Ang epic), Winner Jumalon (a portrait of the doctor’s old medical bag), Ferdie Montemayor (a triptych of elegant swirls of bikers, swimmers and runners) and Joy Mallari (faces, faces and more faces), among others punctuate the white walls. A painting of a social gathering in olden Filipiniana times by Juanito Torres hangs by one of the entrances. “When you come through this door, it’s you’re like entering a party,” laughed Dr. Cuanang. No surprise there since art, after all, is a doorway, a window.

The tour continued.

Past Pam Yan Santos’ salon assemblage (inspired by Juno, Pam’s son with husband and fellow artist John Santos III) complete with a rocking chair, a monolithic cupboard and everything slapped with yellow tape bearing “motherly” reminders: “Do not throw the pillow,” “Please water me,” “Sit at your own risk,” etc. 

Past the for-adults-only erotic room which houses Kiko Escora’s early eroticized paintings from his first shows at Boston Gallery, as well as works by Elmer Borlongan, Mark Justiniani, Plet Bolipata, Jason Moss. Dig Jim Orencio’s erotic pieces and Marika Constantino’s take on the kama sutra.

Past the art movie house/video room which will screen independent art movies. “We will show one of the art movies by Geraldine Javier,” informed Dr. Cuanang. “And she will fill the room with her artworks.” The room resembled a place of worship, just the way edgy art should be regarded. 

Past Stephanie Lopez’s suite featuring sculptures of women talking to each other soundtracked by the artist’s recordings of eerie, overlapping, and babble-like multiple conversations. “So, when you enter this room, you’d hear women na nagchi-chismisan (laughs).”

Past the library where visitors can come in and read Dr. Cuanang’s impressive collection of art books. Maybe sit on the cool Brain Stool, a gift from the Mind Museum, and think about Art, Life and the only things that matter in this skewered universe of ours. 

Past the catwalk festooned with early Borlongan drawings (studies that are astounding in themselves) and watercolors — looking down upon the ground floor of more mammoth paintings by young artists.

Past the master’s bedroom. “Look at these,” Dr. Cuanang pointed out. “These are Mark’s coffee drawings. And these are some of the Ilokano inabel and baul from my collection.”  

Past Daniel dela Cruz’s wood nymphs of Antipolo clambering down the wall and into a stone garden, shining splendidly in silver.

And into the garden named after the doctor’s sister, Ernesta, where the doctor and I chatted some more. 

At home with the collector

“All the artworks that I’ve bought through the years I never resold anything,” he revealed. Even if the auction houses came a-calling with their suitcases. “I don’t remember parting with a single piece. Ang feeling ko kasi, ‘Why is everyone going to Singapore (to have their artworks auctioned off), eh paano makikita ng mga Pilipino ito? I am basically an educator, so I told myself this is the way I would be able to contribute to (the preservation of) our culture.”

The doctor added, “Iba pa rin ‘yung experience of going to a museum. What I want is for young people to develop a culture of museum-going. (When we were selecting pieces for the museum,) I didn’t include anymore the works of the established artists, the masters. Para naman may exposure ‘yung younger artists. Their works are worthy to be exhibited in the first place.”

Ask the members of Salingpusa — Borlongan, Justiniani, Garibay, Leaño, Santos, et al — and they would tell you the good doctor is their patron saint of sorts.

The galleries at that time didn’t want to exhibit the works of the then-unproven young artists who didn’t have an art space of their own. Right after the Edsa Revolution, Dr. Cuanang and his Antipolo neighbors formed a foundation, the Silangan Foundation for the Arts, Culture and Ecology. One of its projects was the rehabilitation of Hinulugang Taktak, so the foundation brought in performers from the Cultural Center of the Arts (CCP), Ballet Philippines, etc., and it attracted this band of art school gypsies. 

“I invited them to come over every Sunday para mag-sketch-sketch sila. One Sunday, I told them, ‘Ilatag ninyo nga ‘yung mga trabaho ninyo.’ Ang gaganda! So, sabi ko sa kanila, ‘Tara mag-show tayo.’ The first exhibit of Salingpusa ay sa likod ng bahay ko noon sa Sierra Madre in the late Eighties,” recalled Dr. Cuanang. “Sinampay namin sa clothesline ‘yung mga small drawings nila. I then invited a lot of my friends. Later on, I opened Boston Gallery in 1991. Doon ang unang exhibits nina Elmer Borlongan and Mark Justiniani.”

The rest, as they say, is art history.

Fast forward to now… inside the Pinto Art Museum that cocoons the best-of-the best of Filipino contemporary art, Dr. Cuanang explained that museum plays a vital part not just culturally (for our generation and the generations to come) but physically and mentally (for the doctor himself).

“I am a neuroscientist and I’ve always maintained that every part of our body should be stimulated,” he explained. “When I come here to the museum on weekends — appreciate art, do gardening chores — I come back to work and I think better, the energy is back. This is an extension of my life.”

With art, Dr. Joven Cuanang concluded, “you sort of heal yourself.” 

* * *

 Pinto Art Museum is at 1 Sierra Madre St., Grand Heights, 1870 Antipolo City.

For information, call 697-1015.


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