Had the name and painting style of Ivan Acuña neither been celebrated nor sought after in the art scene for over 20 years, The Sunday Times Magazine would have mistaken him for a top-notch chef the day this interview took place.
Such was the scene: Rather than sitting down to answer questions, Acuña magically whipped out a portable stove and a pan from nowhere in this magnificent drawing room of an old New Manila mansion.
"I'm cooking!" he buoyantly announced, "and we're going to eat!"
Acuña apparently just bought the property over the pandemic and was still in the process of deciding which antique pieces he wanted to keep or discard. At the same time, part of his impressive Filipino Masters collection sat around sofas, chairs and floors, waiting to be hung on the walls.
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Acuña then started rummaging through some grocery bags he had when he arrived at the appointment and busily unpacked his ingredients. For the next 15 minutes or so, he got to work on the stove that must have been placed atop an age-old narra table.
Looking happy and perfectly at ease, Acuña's hands moved gracefully amid his solid build as he added one ingredient after another into the hot, steaming pan. And as he stirred in what looked from afar like a medley of soft, colorful ribbons and shapes, he looked like the famous abstract expressionist he is again. With a spatula for a brush and a pan for a canvas, he soon enough served beauty on a plate.
Who knew seafood pasta could look like a work of art?
A visual artist, indeed, even when he cooks, Acuña doubles as that best-kept secret chef again at the first colorful burst of flavors his divine 10-minute pasta dish makes in the mouth.
Now that entire scene is worth documenting at length because it encapsulates who and what this acclaimed contemporary artist is all about.
Ivan Acuña is a rockstar. He is a rockstar who does what he pleases and does it to the hilt. Acuña lives life as large as his wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling paintings that famously hang in the most well-appointed building lobbies in the country. He is deeply passionate about his art but never allows it to consume him.
That is why he cooks like a chef du jour when he wants to, revs up his motorcycle whenever wanderlust hits, coolly runs various successful businesses and investments like a carnival juggler, and immerses himself in meeting as many interesting people as he can.
Acuña is a rockstar because while he is deeply passionate about his art, he refuses to be consumed by it and concede to the quintessential artiste persona.
"Hindi ako yung artificial art na may sarili silang mundo at sila-sila lang," he bravely declared. "Ako, my art is for everybody. I live in the world. I am honored, satisfied and happy whether my painting falls into the hands of a prestigious art collector or a first-time art buyer. I'm a people person, so this is how it should be, even with my works."
Guitar man to lensman
Ivan Acuña could have been literally a rockstar had his deep passion for the visual arts failed to lure him away from his guitar. Believe it or not, he started college at the University of the Philippines' College of Music in the mid-'80s.
A happy-go-lucky guitar major, it took a concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where his batch shared the stage with a top visiting Spanish guitarist, to convince Acuña he should be someplace else.
"It was a free concert and free concert na nga, wala pang nanood!" he recalled in disbelief. "I told myself, 'Wala yatang future dito, teka muna,' but I still play the guitar today whenever I feel like it. Classical guitar mainly," he related.
Shifting to Fine Arts, his interest in the aesthetics was piqued through his friendship with Alex Baldovino, son of famed Filipino photographer Dick Baldovino. The senior Baldovino also happens to be the nephew of Acuña's would-be most significant art influence, Philippine National Artist Jose Joya.
From then on, thriving in his new environment, Acuña wanted nothing else but to be in the visual arts.
"I got into photography and became very close to Alex's father. So by 1988, I was fortunate to be finally working with Mr. Dick Baldovino."
The staple choice of National Artists when publishing their coffee table books, Acuña excitedly had a share of the action when Baldovino was commissioned for the photographs of Art Philippines: A history, 1521-present by Juan Gatbonton, Jeannie Javelosa and Lourdes Ruth Roa. Published by The Crucible Workshop in 1992, it is considered today as one of the most comprehensive books on Philippine Art History to date.
Acuña's photographs were last featured in National Artist Benedicto Cabrera's coffee table book, Bencab, published in 2002.
Never one to limit himself to any interest or endeavor, Acuña eventually felt it was time to explore what he had been quietly doing all along his career as a professional photographer and went full throttle in painting.
Acuña's current and continuing success as an abstract impressionist ensued unconventionally, too, of course. A believer in good timing despite his carefree ways, he had kept canvasses of big, bold and colorful strokes hidden in his studio way past the '80s, aware that the Philippine art scene was yet unready to appreciate contemporary art.
"Figurative art was dominant at that time, and I knew abstract impressionism wouldn't survive," Acuña explained.
The social animal that he is, Acuña enjoyed a varied circle of friends who would become key in unveiling his arresting and awe-inspiring brand of art.
"Usually, a typical artist's set up in the Philippines is like this: they go to a gallery to apply to become an in-house artist, or a curator might hunt for them if they're lucky the gallery likes their work. But remember, a single gallery will exhibit as many as 30 to 120 artists. In reality, you're not selling because masuwerte ka if you can exhibit once a year or even once every two years," the gregarious painter elaborated.
"What happened in my case is I was lucky enough that my environment was outside the typical artist's environment. 'Di ba usually ang artist pag nag-opening, naka-upo lang then lalapit yung may-ari ng gallery and yung curator nag-invite ng buyer to make introductions with the artist."
Shaking his head, Acuña continued, "Ako hindi, baliktad. I invite buyers to my exhibit because I know them all. I don't need a curator because ako yung nasa harap welcoming the guests."
His non-traditional approach to getting his work out there and, most importantly, bought has resulted in exhibits mounted in luxury car showrooms like Porsche, Ford, Lotus and Ferrari.
Yes, Acuña is also a collector of vintage automobiles and expensively sweet rides, so everything worked out.
He was also very close to the interior design glitterati that the likes of Budgi Layug began dealing his artworks in 2001. Suffice it to say, Acuña's renown sped faster than his sports cars so that his name and art became top of mind of many architects and designers such as Gil Cosculuela and Anton Mendoza for their building projects here and abroad.
Just do it
"Like I said earlier, I'm just lucky enough that I grew up in Makati, which had the buying power when I started selling my artworks. You know, how the typical artist needs to go to a gallery before they can go to the collector? Ako, I'm already with the collector because they formed my environment," Acuña recapped.
"Thankfully, too, I did good with abstract and feel good when doing abstract, so I like to make it big," imparted the artist whose most sizeable work to date magnificently hangs at the Diamond Hotel, measuring 16 feet by 16 feet.
Given the non-traditional path to his success, however, Acuña clarified he doesn't mean that artists without access to privileged circles will have hopeless careers.
For this rockstar, whose approach to life is to simply enjoy whatever he is doing at the moment as much as he can, Acuña's advice may seem unorthodox, but he promises it will make sense if one tries a different outlook for a minute.
"The young artists today think too deeply about creating art, lalo na yung tinatawag nila na surealismo. The way I see it and the way I do it, creating art doesn't have to be complicated," Acuña suggested.
"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 why people love my paintings."
Call him a rockstar or a rebel, but like it or not Ivan Acuña is internationally revered as a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement of the country. And yet he gleefully uses the same hands for his art in peeling garlic, chopping onions and deshelling seafood when he fancies his special pasta. And more so, he has a blast sharing his delicious creation with friends old and new, just as he relishes offering his visual creations to everyone.
"You don't have to be too serious to succeed as an artist. When you open yourself up to people — unlike confining yourself to the quote, unquote 'artworld' na may sariling mundo — you'll see that big things can happen."