I had always known of Carlo Tanseco as a game-changer in the design landscape of the Philippines—a serious game-changer, that is, until we started our regular dinners the past few years, where his spicy one-liners, delivered with a poker face, would leave me in stitches. It was then I began to know—not merely know of—Carlo S. Tanseco, particularly his biting wit, masked humor and, whimsy. To be honest, I didn’t know sometimes if he was being serious or just pulling my leg, like would he truly dare drag me to a yoga or CrossFit session at 7 in the morning like he said he would?
This side of Carlo crossed my mind the moment I saw his paintings inspired by Dali, Jose Rizal, and Yayoi Kusama. Finally, after many years, the last two of which I’d ask him incessantly about the progress of his paintings, Carlo Tanseco is putting his paintings on exhibit—a first for him, and he said, not the last. His works bear the guy’s sense of paradox that I casually encountered as wit and humor. The man’s whimsy could be intense and complex, and his creativity even more so—again executed perhaps with a deadpan expression that could weaken into a wicked grin.
But such flights are executed, in his art, with the rigor, discipline, and backbreaking attention to detail (see his lobster painting) he must have developed in Architecture (he graduated from the University of the Philippines). There is, he explained to me, a “method to my own madness.”
Carlo Tanseco was the unheralded agenda-setter in home retail, when he was into it. Two decades ago, when the Manila landscape didn’t yet believe in home and lifestyle stores, Carlo put up a trailblazing store chain that, to us regular shoppers at least, was considered the forerunner of Muji or MakeRoom in the local scene. “That was a lifetime ago,” he said when we reminded him about those years.
Indeed it was, and its concept, design direction, and merchandise selection were ahead of its time and presaged the direction home décor retail would take in the country. It was minimalism long before the word reached its near-biblical stature in the world of design. The store bore the clean organic, natural look, with the predominant use of natural weaves and fibers, wicker, earth or neutral tones in its home accessory and furnishing lines. One never thought organizer boxes or stacks, in attractive minimalism, could be must-haves in the home until Carlo’s stores played up their look and function to the hilt, and the market snapped it up.
His foray into retail came on the heels of the prominence he gained in Citem (the Center for International Trade Expositions and Missions of the Department of Trade and Industry) under design icon Eli Pinto. Not known to many now, Carlo was among the initial members of Movement 8, the select group of architects and furniture/home designers organized by Pinto which would gain global prominence in international expositions.
This chapter in Carlo’s early rise became relevant to us as he presents the paintings for his exhibit (May 6-15) for Art Cube Gallery at Art Fair Philippines 2021 (www.artfairphilippines.com). Like in design, Carlo’s art is a masterstroke of breaking away from the norm, and more important, challenging it, even taunting it.
He himself admitted to that when we asked why his choice of Dali.
“Because Dali was the penultimate artist,” he said. “He had so many incarnations and iterations in his life—from painting to theater and graphic design. This sort of represents my different approaches to art and design. He was also a rebel of sorts; he didn’t care what others thought…he really broke free from a lot of barriers in art and in society. It also relates to the rest of my paintings, where the characters all seem to break free from the static patterns that trap them.
‘When I was a child, I watched this movie at Arcegas and it sort of influenced my works in a way’
“I’d like to point out one of my pieces showing Dali licking a planet on a stick—it’s a sly reference to his design of the Chupachups lollipop logo, but this goes further back. It also references La Planete Sauvage, an animated 1973 film that was inspired by Dali’s work. When I was a child, I watched this movie at Arcegas across Magnolia House (Quezon City) and it sort of influenced my works in a way.”
About two years ago, when Carlo told us that he had been painting—it turned out, he had been at it again for a decade already—we thought his works would be abstract or expressionistic, where he could give free rein to his thoughts, emotions, and even inner demons (if any) in the flurry and flourish of strokes. We didn’t expect to see iconic personages such as Dali, Kusama and Rizal.
“It was an exploration of the idea of patterns and geometric shapes in a grid,” Carlo explained. “For Dali and Kusama in particular, I chose these icons because they used the principles of patterns and geometric shapes in their art.
“The first paintings I did focused on Greek Mythology, which I love—the stories seem irrational, unbelievable, but once dissected, the narratives were so beautiful and surreal. And it was all written like it was absolutely true!
‘Perhaps, it is Rizal looking at you, our national hero studying you with his patriotic eye’
“The last series, which was all about Rizal, alludes to his being an ophthalmologist. If you take a look at the eye chart, with his final poem, Mi Ultimo Adios—at first you think you are viewing Rizal, but perhaps, it is Rizal looking at you, our national hero studying you with his patriotic eye. Are we living up to what we are as citizens of this country? Depending on how you look at the pieces, he could be judging you.”
In that way does Carlo tell a story about his own reality and perhaps ours, too.
“My inspiration comes from the contrast and duality of life,” he explained. “The pieces in this collection all have a narrative, which can all be twisted or tweaked by the viewer’s biases or beliefs. It can become their own narrative. The viewer can interpret it any way he or she likes, depending on his/her cultural background, political leaning, view of life. There is no one meaning.”
He uses acrylic on canvas.
“Many thought my style would be very abstract or expressionistic, as you said. But my principles in design (whether product, interior, architecture, space, furniture, etc.) ever since, have been based on form, function, familiarity, and frivolity.”
He follows order so that he can break it—that is the Carlo Tanseco we’ve come to know. “I love pattern, order, and symmetry. This exhibit is all about breaking that order, of violating it so that a new figure or realm emerges and opposes it. It is about uniformity and consistency yielding to something that is free, defiant, and unique. It is about ideas that challenge the system.”
While he went back to painting a few years back, it was the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown that forced him to stay put. “The lockdown actually helped me in my painting. It was the turning point that made me focus on my art,” he said.
“The uncertainty about everything and the escalating sense of mortality egged me on to look inside of myself and work on these pieces. For the first time in a long time and for 11 straight months, I was unhindered by daily life and work that prevented me from picking up the paint brush and focusing on this passion. And now, there is no turning back as I now dedicate my time to this passion.”
‘This pandemic also made me realize, more than ever, not to put off for tomorrow what you want to do already today
Then he echoed what was on our mind: “This pandemic also made me realize, more than ever, not to put off for tomorrow what you want to do already today.”
In fact, the idea to mount an exhibit has been there for almost a decade; he has been doing concepts and sketches for this collection.
The more we know Carlo Tanseco, the more we’ve come to realize that he is an artist who became a designer and now a designer re-becoming an artist.
His architecture background left him rooted to the ground. “In architecture, we were schooled to create from the ground up—to establish a foundation or a grid. This reflects itself in the symmetry, geometry, and patterns of my paintings. These straight lines, they really cut into my architectural training, and to my search for order.
“The strange thing is that even if I do like geometry and strict order, I always find ways to break free from them, to negate them. I like contrast, unexpected details, and irreverence. Even most of my furniture pieces show this—the Icarus Chair, for example—ergonomically correct, but with wings.”
This was what I meant early on—the wit and whimsy that emerge when you least expect it. “My paintings always have a counterpoint, a punchline. This is the character breaking through, or breaking from the order or a system.”
We coax him into remembering his early years in the Philippine design-scape. “Store Company, Citem and export (business) seem like a lifetime ago, but are every important aspects of my career and growth as an artist. I have learned many lessons and disciplines from my experiences in those times. They presented different challenges, especially with respect to design as you had to consider production, costs, budgets, target markets whether here or abroad, and other factors. But while I learned and gained so much experience, this new medium now affords much unbridled liberation and freedom to express myself.”
His first public art work, done in 2012-2013, was the stained glass design of the Oratory of St. Francis Xavier at the Xavier chapel on the Xavier School campus in the south. His friend and adviser, Fr. Johnny Go, then head of Xavier, asked him to create it.
“Its style and process carried over to my first visual art exhibit,” Carlo recalled the Xavier art. “The piecing together of these glass shapes to form complete images also correlates to the piecing together of a grid to form a complete idea on canvas. I think this was also a seminal point in my painting style.”
‘God truly works in ways to make you pursue your passions’
The Jesuit-schooled artist said, “God truly works in ways to make you pursue your passions.”
For the past year or so, Carlo Tanseco has been spending a lot of time in Siargao. To him, Siargao is freedom regained, even in this pandemic.
“I found paradise in Siargao. There is just something about the island that made me want to pack up and leave the city. There is a ‘vibe’ that people say is the life of the island, but I cannot explain it. But when you get here, you will experience it and you will know the feeling. It’s nature at its finest —the beach, ocean, sun, sand, trees, fresh air all add to its beauty.”
His days in Siargao are spent painting—and living the life he wants.
“The community is a strong part of what makes the island. People are warm and friendly and their zeal for life is infectious. It is a simple life but it offers things that are essential to my lifestyle. I am able to work out, go to CrossFit, do yoga, eat in restaurants run by foreign and international chefs or even at the most nondescript hole in the wall that offers the best that the island has. There is even a salon run by a professional Japanese stylist.
“There is really so much to do and I haven’t even started surfing yet. Every day is a surreal moment, and all this on an island off Mindanao.”
He set up a painting studio in Siargao, away from the distractions of Metro Manila.
He is set to open late this year an eight-room villa in Siargao, to be called Muni-Muni Villas Siargao, where, he said, “I hope to be able to share my love for the island with friends and tourists while I paint.”
We’re already making our to-do list in Siargao for when the islands reopen and we can meet up again with Carlo. We want to experience for ourselves the method to his madness.