The artist talks about creating art as a visual language, exploring NFTs, and the future of art in the Philippines with Vogue Philippines.
Contemporary painter and interdisciplinary artist Bjorn Calleja’s style is distinct: cartoon-like characters with exaggerated human features–large googly eyes, pronounced lips, enlarged limbs, and body parts emphasized with color. In his special exhibit for this year’s Art In The Park, set to make its face-to-face return to Jaime Velasquez Park in Salcedo Village on March 19, visitors will see his signature style in a medium devoid of color: charcoal and graphite.
“I’ve been trying to relearn how to draw again with soft pastels, tapos yung mga papers kasi may colored papers yung pang-pastel e,” (and there are colored papers meant for pastel) he shares. “Yung last na pieces niya puro white, so hindi nagwowork yung soft pastels sa white. And then I tried using charcoal, tapos nasarapan ako sa kanya” (and I enjoyed it).
Drawing On Human Experience
His exhibit, “Dirty Hands,” includes six large-scale drawings in charcoal and graphite. His artwork plays on gestures and strokes, giving abstract art features such as eyes, noses, ears, and limbs, alluding to the human form.
“There’s something about charcoal, it got my attention,” he says. “How it applies to the paper, how I can make the lines, different tones, different shades with the material.”
In addition to the illustrations, Calleja will be showcasing three ceramic sculptures, as well as two ceramic lamps and a floor lamp with charcoal features done in collaboration with lamp maker Solana. “I’ve been studying and working on ceramic sculptures ever since nung nag-open tayo from the pandemic” (we opened from the pandemic), he says.
For each of his pieces, Calleja draws on the human experience. “Most of the influences; most of the work are yung experience ko bilang tao, yung human psychology” (most of the work is my experience as a person of human psychology), he explains. “Yung iba naman based on heritage, our history, yung history na alam ko, Philippine history or history ng mundo, or history ko bilang tao. There are different levels of creation for every piece” (Others are based on heritage, our history, the history I know, Philippine history or world history, or my history as a person), he says.
More importantly, Calleja treats the creation of art as coining a visual language. “It’s one way ng pag-open ng dialogue or conversation with people. Tapos kaya cartoonish para accessible siya sa audience, and there are different levels of accessing the work,” he elaborates.
“Depending on how people will view the artwork, pwedeng they see cartoons kasi it’s one of the languages that I use that I think is very relatable to people, and then if you look at it closer, andun yung gestures, yung strokes” (it’s possible they see cartoons because it’s one of the languages that I use that I think is very relatable to people, and then if you look at it closer, you see the gestures, the strokes), he says. “I’m trying to open up conversations about painting through the paintings.”
Opening conversations about painting is just the tip of the iceberg for Calleja, who isn’t afraid to experiment and use different mediums for his art. Apart from drawing with charcoals and graphite, doing ceramic sculptures, and painting using spray paint, acrylics, and oils, Calleja also does digital artwork and has worked as a professional graphic designer early in his career. His capabilities as a digital artist have given him leeway to experiment with non-fungible token (NFT) artwork. The idea was first presented to him by a friend who had introduced him to crypto earlier and had informed him later on that they had found an eco-friendly marketplace for digital art.
“I was making animations prior, so sabi niya baka pwede nating ipasok yung animations mo doon” (he said maybe we can offer your animations there), the artist shared. “Nag-try kami, then to make the long story short, nag-start din mag-build ng community about the work that I do doon sa space” (We tried… we started to build a community about the work that I do in that space), he continues.
Intending to experiment for fun, Calleja began offering digital animations of figures from his physical paintings. He moved on to create the Stoopid Avatar Project, a satire of the profile picture (PFP) culture. In both instances, Calleja was surprised to find that beyond people patronizing his NFT art, he was building communities around his work. “The people who bought into the project were getting my humor. It’s all for fun lang naman” (It’s all just for fun), he admits.
Following this, he worked with the art collective alterHEN to offer “phygital art:” physical paintings he did in collaboration with Dennis Bato for Mono8 Art Gallery the year prior, with the intention to offer the digital artwork as the certificate of authenticity.
“Parang ‘di siya nag-work e. Kasi ang bumibili ng paintings are collectors ng physical paintings, so I’m not sure if nadistribute namin yung NFTs after” (I don’t think it worked. Because the buyers of paintings are collectors of physical paintings, so I’m not sure if we were able to distribute the NFTs after), he says.
“People are still having doubts and fears about the technology kasi nga crypto is money, so anything that involves money, scary pa rin sa mga tao” (because crypto is money, so anything that involves money is still scary for people), he explains. “Ngayon, tinitignan namin, we can work with the digital thing using fiat or paper money or the peso, kung magwowork siya para matanggal yung fear na babagsak yung value” (Now, we’re checking, we can work with the digital thing using fiat or paper money or the peso, if it’s going to work so we can remove the fear that its value will fall).
Philippine Art Revived
Market aside, Calleja sees a revival in the Philippine art scene, thanks to the private sector.
“People like organizers of the Art Fair [are] helping to promote and showcase art sa maraming tao, with art fairs like Art In The Park” (showcase art to many people, with art fairs like Art In The Park), he says. “I think nagboboom na tayo ngayon kasi marami nang art fairs, tapos people are aware of what’s happening in the art world via social media, so may access na” (we are booming right now because there are plenty of art fairs, and people are aware… so there’s access).
On top of this, Calleja sees that people are starting to see art as part of their lives and that this will continue moving forward as we have many talented artists championing Philippine art.
“Every movement marami tayong champion. Nandyan sina [Victorio] Edades, [Ang] Kiukok, meron tayo nung mga [Fernando] Amorsolo, mga Juan Luna” (Every movement we have many champions, we have Edades, Kiukok, we have the Amorsolos, the Juan Lunas), he says.
“Philippine art has been really strong throughout history. We have a lot of really good art, looking back sa history ng Philippine art” (looking back at the history of Philippine art), he declares.
For more information, please visit www.artinthepark.ph and follow www.facebook/artinthepark and @artintheparkph on Instagram.