Artist Pope Bacay celebrates the ordinary in latest solo exhibition

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Pope Bacay
Artist Pope Bacay in his studio. Photo by JT Fernandez

Contemporary artist Pope Bacay dares to develop two distinct visual styles while celebrating wonder in the ordinary in his latest solo exhibit


Pope Bacay (b. 1994) is a young Filipino artist who is steadily gaining renown, moving from his status as an emerging artist to one of the youngest established artists in the Philippines. His ongoing solo exhibition “Walking is a Dwelling” at Artinformal Gallery in Makati resulted in a sold-out show prior to opening.

On opening night, the exhibit was received by attending collectors, many of whom recalled wistfully watching the progression of the artist’s career in the past few years. It was also announced by gallery owner Tina Fernandez that the artist was to be signed as a resident artist with Artinformal Gallery.

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Pope Bacay art
One of the monumental works exhibited at “Walking is a Dwelling” at Artinformal Gallery. Photo by JT Fernandez


Formative days in Mindoro and UP Diliman

Bacay grew up in a town in the south of Oriental Mindoro, which he describes as a remote area with the best beaches and a port that conveniently sails to Boracay. During his schooling years, Bacay moved to Manila to study, and it was here where he enrolled in weekend workshops with Fernando Sena, considered the “Father of the Philippine Art Workshop.”

READ MORE: Fernando Sena, the art world’s silent mover

Every weekend, he would excitedly attend art classes. Bacay’s mother was also constantly supportive of his interest in art. “Nagustuhan ko ang art at naging natural sa akin,” he says. “Core memory na paano ako na-i-introduce to art. My mom came to Manila and brought a Picasso book. ’Yun talaga ’yung intro ko to fine art, si Piccaso. Hindi ’yung realists. Napalawak ’yung understanding ko of art kasi abstraction ’yung nakita ko sa fine art field.”

Pope Bacay
The artist in his studio. Photo by JT Fernandez

Come college, Bacay was accepted into UP Diliman’s fine arts program, considered the best in the country. The program even had talent tests to measure the artistic abilities of aspiring students. Bacay recounts how entrance examinees had to draw a hand imagining an object—with hand drawing being a telltale sign of one’s skill as an artist. He drew a hand clutching a stress ball.

He credits his mentors Benjie Cabangis and Christina “Ling” Quisumbing Ramilo as having a significant role in his early education. “I’m very thankful to Sir Benjie Cabangis for building up the foundations with the techniques he taught us in our classes. Meanwhile, natatak ’yung mentorship ni Ma’am Ling because she brought us outside, introduced us to galleries, and helped us have shows. She wanted us to experience shows professionally.”

Pope Bacay art
A painting of a facade in Lisbon, Portugal at Bacay’s most recent show. Photo by JT Fernandez

Gallery owners and well-known collectors would even sit in their classes, becoming patrons of the artists in the UP Fine Arts programming. A part of Block Y, Bacay and his class had notable group exhibitions early on in established galleries, with a show at West Gallery, “Meditations and Musings” as well as “Death Cleaners” at Artinformal in 2018. 

READ MORE: How Gravity Art Space is breaking the gallery mold

“During my time at UP, Miguel Puyat, Indy Paredes, and I became close. Sila ’yung kasama ko kahit after hours. Our classroom in UP is technically a studio but no one uses it. Noon maliit ’yung apartment ko so I couldn’t really use it as a studio. So, nag-o-overnight at nagpipinta kami. Pinapayagan naman ng guard and it was productive. ”


Pope Bacay’s two visual languages

Bacay is one of those rare contemporary artists who practices more than one style. With a penchant for realism as a student, his work steadily veered into loose abstractions then realist elements with theoretical undertones of the surreal. 

“Since I was young, inclined ako to landscapes. I’m from Mindoro na puro seascape. Moving to Manila,  namimimiss ko ’yung dagat. Up until college, laging realist ’yung works ko. During our third year, Ma’am Ling said sa class namin na masyado kaming uptight at seryoso. She wanted us to loosen up from our very tedious process. So nagpagawa siya ng plate—‘angry paintings.’ Something not necessarily angry but loose. Doon pinanganak ’yung abstract ko na works. Out of the blue, I picked up my paints and palette knife and did impasto abstractions. Nasa head ko talaga ang landscape so pumupunta doon.”


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A post shared by Pope Bacay (@popebacay)

Apart from his amorphous abstract landscapes, Bacay is known for capturing realist structures and details of architecture, often of 1950s-style homes with doors and windows in unconventional places. He is also well-known for painting an empty frame, starting conversations on the metaphysical essence of what exactly constitutes a painting. 


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A post shared by Pope Bacay (@popebacay)

“Eventually I asked Ma’am Ling, which of the two should I pursue? Where do I have strength? She told me, ‘May nagsabi ba sayo na bawal i-pursue pareho?’ So I did. Di ako mamili ng isang style. Usually kasi sa painting there is a notion that you have to stick to a style and develop that. In my case, I chose to pursue the two. I didn’t try to merge them. I tried to develop them separately. The relationship between the two go hand-in-hand. I wouldn’t be able to pursue my windows if I didn’t have my abstracts. The abstracts help me loosen up and gain momentum to paint again, after a tedious and focused process of realist painting. Each fuels my excitement to work on the other after a while.”


His most recent solo show

Bacay’s exhibition “Walking is a Dwelling” at Artinformal Gallery focuses on his style that depicts realist structures. At a glance, the frames appear to capture spaces abroad—not the homes or windows that appear to be distinct to Philippine architecture. Instead, the works depict facades of places and things in Europe—from Lisbon, Portugal and Madrid, Spain to Switzerland.

But the artist’s starting point for the show was in the Philippines. He gestures to the painting of a torn, disheveled armchair he spotted in San Juan on the side of the road. He also cites an earlier trip to Venice where he was fascinated by the discarded mattresses and books left outside homes after routine flooding. 

Pope Bacay art
Bacay incorporates source images of the discarded chair in San Juan on the left panel and an architectural image from a close friend in the US on the right panel. Photo by JT Fernandez

“Some furniture stays there for a while, becoming a spectacle,” he says. “My practice has been documenting windows at kahit ano dinadaan ko. Mga objects ’yung tinatapon sa facade, discarded items left on the side of the road, waiting to be picked up, in limbo. I wanted people to appreciate it, to always look through it.”

On a recent vacation with his family in Europe, Bacay began taking morning walks in Madrid, documenting windows. Here, he came across the El Rastro flea market. He began to return daily, admiring vintage pieces and random items, taking photos of whatever caught his attention.

“Most of the objects are stuff na dapat sa bahay—chandelier, sofa, these are things we see inside the house di ba. During my walk, I saw things that could make up a home. That sofa is already a home to me. Because I see things that are at home, I feel at home.”

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One particular diptych shows a large blue sofa. While he took a photo of the actual sofa, Bacay had to recreate the chair using artificial intelligence (A.I.), since his camera with the actual image was stolen. The real sofa, which was gray, was transformed into blue. One can tell the painting is A.I. in the way the cushions don’t align, adding to the narrative of the painting.

Installed in the gallery, the blue sofa hangs in front of a small painting depicting a view of a crystal blue lake against the Swiss Alps. The small painting acts as a physical metaphor for a window view of a scene in Switzerland. During the opening, guests would amusedly stand or squat in front of the sofa and look at the painted view in the small painting, playfully imagining as if they were actually there.

Pope Bacay art
Photo by JT Fernandez

Through his work, Bacay gives special attention to the value of objects, especially those that are discarded. Using walking as a means of source material, he captures that feeling of elation while walking through the streets of Europe in a clever, self-referential way, adding aspects of the magical and surreal to the ordinary throughout.

“Walking is a Dwelling” runs at Artinformal Gallery from Apr. 25 to May 23, 2024.

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