Acclaimed designer Carlo Tanseco unveils a debut collection of paintings that reveal the many, often contrasting aspects of everything
Designer and artist Carlo Tanseco will probably hate me for this, but he is to me J.D. Salinger, Arcimboldo, and a matinee idol in one.
Like “The Catcher in the Rye” author, Carlo is, in fact, a recluse, or at least private to the extreme, even when he was a rock star in Philippine design—he still is. I first met him at CITEM (Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions) as part of the late Eli Pinto Mansor’s Movement 8, which toured the world in the late ’90s, participating in the major design fairs, such as Maison & Objet in Paris, the furniture fairs in Milan and Valencia, and the ICFF in New York.
Carlo is also like Italian Renaissance painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo, one of his art heroes, along with Boticelli, Bosch, Dali, and Fornasetti. For one, they share a wicked sense of humor, as well as a lot of whimsy, even as they would both pack the canvas with multiple references and elements that, other than symbolic, are sown on either factual or historical, even scientific, grounds. In his portrait of Rudolf II, where the Bohemian king and member of the Habsburg family “looks less like a king than a crudité platter,” according to the Smithsonian, Arcimboldo “painted his royal patron as a heap of fruits and vegetables.” More than humor, it was a reflection of the Habsburgs’ love for nature, as well as a symbol, albeit with a touch of the comic, of their expansive influence, with corn and eggplants, then exotic specimens from the New World, incorporated into the portrait.
As for the matinee idol, lest I embarrass him further, I will let Carlo’s movie star looks speak for me, not to mention the physique he has so sculpted with as much of the devotion he gives to his art and his designs.
Although he avoids public attention like the coronavirus, Carlo is enjoying a personal renaissance, baring his soul through a medium he had not heretofore fully explored—painting. On May 6, 2021, after a year of intense, backbreaking, and soulsearching work, he will unveil what he calls “Juxtaposed—Between Order and Complexity.” A debut collection of 22 paintings in acrylic on canvas, it will be launched at Art Cube Gallery in Makati City as part of the ninth edition of Art Fair Philippines.
Carlo is no stranger to public art, his first foray into which was in 2012, when he was asked to create the stained-glass designs of the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier at Xavier School Nuvali. This painting debut, however, is a pandemic baby. “The pandemic was a turning point for me,” he explains. “The uncertainty and the escalating sense of mortality egged me on to look inside of myself. For the first time in a long time and for 11 straight months, I was unhindered by daily life that previously prevented me from picking up the paint brush.”
‘Even when I design furniture, I have to answer to the functionality of it, but I also have to break away. For example, my Icarus Chair—it has to be ergonomically correct, but it has wings!’
At first glance, Carlos’s paintings, as his gallerist puts it, imply a leaning toward traditional figurative art, but this is skewed with the perspective of a grid or a pattern in which the subject dwells, yet at once also breaks free from.
“I was schooled as an architect, and I am compelled to start from the ground up…to establish a foundation through a grid or a formula,” says Carlo. “I employ symmetry, geometry, and order first, so I would know how to violate that order, which is the next step. The product usually yields an interesting study in contrast, which is ironically harmonious.”
In Carlo’s own words, his debut collection, imbued with ideas that challenge the system, is about uniformity and consistency yielding to something that is free, defiant, and unique.
Although his new medium affords him what he describes as “much unbridled liberation and freedom to express myself,” Carlo remains guided by the very same principles on which his acclaimed works in design, whether product, interior, architecture or space, furniture, etc., are rooted. He calls these principles his four Fs—form, function, familiarity, and frivolity, the last F being a Carlo Tanseco signature, which is why I liken him to Arcimboldo, whom you can call a court jester without being disrespectful.
Not only is there visual wit in Carlo’s paintings, there are also myriad questions raised. While no definitive answer is given—Carlo leaves much of his work to viewer interpretation—he sees to it that even his most whimsical forays are a leap from facts. “The pieces in this collection all have a narrative, but it can all be twisted or tweaked by the viewer’s biases or beliefs,” he says. “The audience can interpret it in any way, depending on their cultural background, political leaning, view of life, and so forth.”
His Jose Rizal series, for instance, alludes to the national hero’s vocation as an ophthalmologist, a life choice he made on account of his mother’s blindness. It is also a nod to what Carlo considers as Rizal’s unique way of seeing things. In a piece in his Eye Chart series, interwoven with the poem “Mi Ultimo Adios,” the viewer may be looking at Rizal inasmuch as Rizal is looking at the viewer. “He’s studying you with his patriotic eye,” muses Carlo. “He could be judging you.”
Then there is Dali. I might add that, along with Pablo Picasso, it was Dali who rescued Arcimboldo from oblivion, having found some of his works in private hands, away from public appreciation. “[I have] paintings of Salvador Dali [because] I like him. He had many incarnations in his life, many facets, many iterations. I won’t run out of stories and anecdotes to paint,” explains Carlo. “If the viewer knows Dali, then they will get that, for example, he has a fetish for the eye. Here, I used the eye as a graphic pattern echoing the realistic eye inside the magnifying glass. Or viewers may recall that he is popular for his magnifying glass pictures and the back stories that go with them.”
Also included in the collection is a series on Greek mythology, of which Carlo is enamored. “The stories seem irrational, unbelievable, but once dissected, the narratives are so beautiful and surreal. They were all written as if they were Bible-truth!” says Carlo, whose collection also features another of his modern art heroes, the Japanese modernist Yayoi Kusama, who, like Dali, like Carlo, uses patterns and geometric shapes in her art.
As in Dali’s and Kusama’s, there is a method to Carlo’s madness. These patterns and grids, which are as ubiquitous in his work as a clever, sometimes jocular, sometimes enigmatic, sometimes conspiratorial wink to the viewer, form a landscape on which each subject contradicts itself—a battleground for many of life’s duplicities, or even multiplicities, such as between fact and fantasy, vice and virtue, war and peace, life and death, even between the truth and the lies. Equally deft is Carlo’s use of literary, historical, mythical, and pop culture figures, which, true to his theme title, “Juxtaposed,” puts past and present together to highlight both connections and disparities.
As for the future, Carlo says he isn’t looking very far yet. He just knows that, now that he is dedicating his time to focus on his rekindled passion for artmaking, there is no turning back. “I have only gone as far as seeing my next collection. I am quite excited, motivated, and inspired, despite the situation (pandemic). I hope this is true for art in general.”