In the modern world where the global population is unprecedentedly connected through the power of social media, huge quantities of content are now capable of spreading their wings far and wide across the world with just the simple tap of the screen. The online discourse on current events has only expanded as a result, as this newly interconnected web of netizens have both rallied together and fought with one another amidst the boundless walls of the internet.
One buzzword that has since dominated popular conversation in recent years is ‘appropriation’ – that is, the theft of a culture, nation, group or individual’s unique ideas for the sake of another person or company’s profits. From fashion houses like Isabel Marant issuing apologies after being accused of ripping off textiles native to the indigenous Mexicans in her collections to rallying cries against pop stars like Beyoncé and Gwen Stefani for their use of bindis and saris throughout their artistic visuals, addressing appropriation has become an almost unshakable aspect of the dominant digital conversation – especially when the appropriation is weaponized by people with malintent and ulterior motives.
For NYC-based Filipino artist Sean Go, the contemporary zeitgeist has become an opportunity for the creative to address appropriation head-on through his view of Pop Appropriation art. According to Go, Pop Appropriation art levels the playing field for casual and dedicated art consumers alike through the use of iconic motifs, making new ideas both nostalgically familiar and easily digestible in one fell swoop – though, as Go always says, each and every piece of his art is up to the explicit interpretation of its viewer. Go’s iconography often appropriates from his favorite artists too, including Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Maurizio Cattelan, Roy Lichtenstein, and Barbara Kruger.
Go’s love and appreciation for art stems back to his childhood when he bore witness to his grandfather’s successful career in art investment, with a concentration in Filipino abstract expressionists from the 1950s. Go was lucky to have taken painting lessons in his family’s art room, surrounded by the works of Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, including pieces called “A Night at the Nipa Hut” and “Guava,” artworks that showed Go how to play with perspective. Exposure to Filipino Masters from his culture from an early age planted the seeds for Go’s artistic inclination in the years to come. One of his favorite Filipino artists is Michael Cacnio, who depicts social realist pastoral ideals of Filipino life through sculptures, using memories of Taho, the game of “Sipa” and bright balloons to convey Filipino optimism despite living simple lives, often away from technology. Go also appreciates the works of Michael’s late father Angel, who often painted romanticized Filipino impressionist art, including scenes of “sabong” rooster fights, karaoke, and other common Filipino recreational activities. These engaging scenes, as well as the festive paintings of Jerry Navarro Elizalde, inspired Go’s understanding of color theory.
Drawing from Cacnio’s sculptures has influenced the way Sean uses common Filipino street food, Pinoy-branded products, and romanticized Filipino memories in his own art. Sean’s art Halo Halo, is a whimsical symphony of his favorite Philippine dessert “halo halo” combined with one of his favorite video games – Halo. For him, video games mix people together in group fun and competition, just like the famous “halo halo” dessert in Manila. In fact, halo halo in tagalog means “mix mix.” His piece Taho Trooper, which shows stormtroopers as taho consumers, also pays tribute to the dessert taho, a Philippine snack food made of fresh silken tofu, arnibal, and sago pearls. Through his art pieces, Sean romanticizes nostalgic Filipino memories in a way that is funnily consistent with millennials and Gen Z, combined with lore from Halo and Star Wars. Another set of memories that Go cherishes is of his grandmother narrating the bedtime stories of Jonah, Samson, Noah, and even Lot’s wife to him as a young child. Go’s Biblical Expression series reinterprets these Bible Stories in a celebratory fashion, influenced by Filipino artist Ang Kiukok’s reverence to abstract renderings of classical Old Testament stories. In the future, Go is hoping to capture through art his grandfather’s proverbs, which are spoken in Hokkien.
Despite Sean’s fond childhood memories of art, Go didn’t immediately turn to art upon entering adulthood. Instead, Go diversified his interests through his educational opportunities, amassing an impressive seven degrees along the way and coveted positions at financial services firms including Ernst and Young and HSBC. While he found success establishing his own education company and hedge fund, Go ultimately turned his attention to his long-time love for art full-time. The funny part of life is that the things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, if not always in the way we expect. For Go, his background studying capitalist critiques, both its glories and discontents, came back as a layer in his art. Through symbols and allusions, Go’s work – Marx’s conditioning shampoo, Terra Cotta Spidey, and Taped Together, paints both the glorious and delusional effects of late-stage capitalism on society’s collective mental health. Further, during his time studying film at USC’s school of cinematic arts, Go became enamored with the way visual cues and colors can change the way someone feels. These experiences directly affect his color palate and his systematic recolorings and variants of his art pieces.
Now, Go taps into his unique perspective as a Filipino, an immigrant to the United States, and a success story of the American Dream in one fell swoop throughout his thought-provoking artistic works. Rather than shuttering himself into a niche, Go instead embraces the incredible dynamism that is life and the raw individuality time brings to each and every person, and the way these unique circumstances inform interpretations of his art. Since Go started his journey, he has been picked up by blue-chip art dealer Derek Flores of DF Agency, who has helped artists like Andres Barroquinto to be included in many museums. While Go has had multiple shows in New York City, Atlanta, Jakarta, and Manila, he will have his first ever solo show in June 2023 in Manila, called the “Fallacies of Fantasy.”
Utilizing – or ‘appropriating’ – globally familiar imagery like Disney princesses and Marvel superheroes and juxtaposing them with Filipino social issues, Go has been able to create a nuanced commentary of Filipino society that welcomes everyone in and easily resonates with Western art viewers. With Make a Man out of Ditto, which blends elements from Disney’s Mulan with the ever-popular Pokémon franchise, Go reveals scathing critiques on the modern military complex, while the seven-piece 7 Dwarf Origins collection uses tongue-in-cheek imagery to invoke a humorous interpretation of contemporary capitalism. With mixed media pieces such as Triple Elvis, Celestial Fruit, Monkey Train, and Go’s inflatable series, he uses inflatables as anthropomorphic representations of human life, paying homage to Warhol and Jeff Koons. He also returns to fruits as symbols of desire, especially apples and this can be interpreted as either joyous childlike delight or sin, depending on the viewer and his or her beliefs. Following Koonsian techniques, The Birth of Venus pays homage to Sandro Boticelli’s work of the same name, combining a pop appropriation style similar to Jeff Koons’ Antiquity series with the modernity of minecraft.
Expanding out of paintings, Go is working on expanding his practice to sculptures. His series, featuring golden helmets of famous Star Wars characters, called “Stay Gold,” is the first Sean Go Art sculptural body of work exploring the fallacies of fantasy and nostalgia. As a fan of Filipino sculptor Solomon Saprid, Go hopes to mold his own sculptures to reflect a snapshot in time of bliss and untarnished perfection. Beyond sculptures of reasonable scale, Go is interested in developing public art and activation spaces in the future. Having been called the Filipino Jeff Koons, Go believes that only time will tell if his works will reach the scale of “Puppy” or the Balloon Dog that is in the Broad museum.
Appropriation may continue dominating the online discourse in the years to come, but with artists like Go providing thoughtful perspectives on the topic, the Filipino trailblazer is proving there truly is a place for nuanced appropriation in the world of modern art.