March 20, 2023 – Redge
Photography by: Metrophoto
Emerging pop culture artist Sean Go on re-interpreting contemporary art with timeless themes.
Stepping into a cafe, Sean Go could easily be mistaken for a Hollywood celebrity.
Standing over six-feet tall and sporting looks worthy of Marvel’s Shang-Chi, or a traditional Korean drama, or any product commercial involving skincare, one wonders why instead of playing superheroes, he chooses to portray them as parodies as beneath his brush, Mickey Mouse peruses Playboy, Peter Pan gets drunk with Captain Hook, and Halo’s Master Chief has a thing for Halo-halo.
His re-knowing of nostalgia though, isn’t what it seems. “Some of my pieces have a darker meaning glossed over with bright paint and flowery colors,” he explains, “one of my works is “Babi Wawa” (Crying Barbie). It’s meant to remind people of how an obsession with optics is often a sign of unhappiness underneath.”
Asked if he is concerned with potential lawsuits from Disney, Marvel or even local fast food giant Jollibee (whose hallmark mascot totes a rifle and a wad of cash), Sean exclaims “oh, I’d take that as a compliment!” The rules of fair use aside, he feels that the legal battle would only raise awareness to his craft.
In this Sean is in good company, as he follows the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, and Roy Lichtenstein— artists who leverage iconic visuals to establish a connection with the viewer, then uses that familiarity to suggest novel emotions. “A lot of art is abstraction,” says Sean, “either consciously or sub-consciously, we re-interpret its message, making everyone’s interpretation different, but equally valid.”
Sean’s sensibilities towards capitalism and mainstream media also echo street artist Banksy’s comment that: “Good art should comfort the disturbed, and the disturb the comfortable.”
It is a hero-like sentiment for someone with a somewhat tragic origin story.
Can Sell Culture
Shang-Chi’s father was a warlord who wanted his son to carry on his criminal empire. Captain America lost the love of his life, his best friend, and everything he knew before being re-animated into the modern day Marvel canon.
With hyperbole scaled back a bit, Sean is a bit of both.
To start, he is an artist “tragically” born into a family that prioritizes financial stability over expression.
“My family means well,” Sean says, “they value risk management and for them, art as one’s sole source of income didn’t make very much sense.” He expands that the cryptic nature of income forecasting in the art world is akin to kryptonite for entrepreneurs. One can have zero sales for two months, before selling five pieces the next. “But what if you needed money for medical bills?” Sean posits, “you’d have to sell pieces at a discount, right? New people could buy that, but then one of your collectors hears this— what would they think?”
Akin to Steve Rogers (whose super soldier version, Captain America, is juxtaposed with local jeepneys in one of Sean’s works), he has also spent much of his time in the west. Sean has only recently returned to the Philippines after completing his studies abroad. One look at his resume and one could swear it was a summary of Jason Bourne’s identities.
Holding college degrees in economics, laws, business and even real estate, from Ivy League universities no less, he still manages to ask himself: “How do you stay humble while trying to promote yourself?”
Renaissance-man vibes aside, much of his start was influenced by the death of a friend. “It inspired me to go after my dreams, even if they aren’t in the usual, accepted ways.” And to this end Sean relies on the one trait all remarkable superheroes have…
The Business of Art
With the advent of A.I. Art and the near-future reality of seemingly ubiquitous pretty pictures, Sean states that personal branding is more important than ever— a testament that people buy the artist, and not just the work.
“Thankfully I have a really good agent— someone honest, with a proven track record, and dresses well!” the often black-clad Sean says of his agent, Derek Flores. Beyond this, Sean’s branding involves being tenacious (especially when finishing a piece), being affable (as opposed to the usual snotty, high-brow, devil-wears-prada persona adapted by fine artists), and having narrative ability. “My work focuses on nostalgia in large part because what people want to buy when they get older, is time.”
Mild Contempt for the Contemporary
Go shares an observation.
“If you go to an auction house to bid for art, they start with introductions. Every piece is described, who the artist is, their dimensions, the material, everything.” He recounts, ”No one claps. But. When the piece is finally sold for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, everyone claps. It’s kinda funny.”
It reveals perhaps the current value of art as a store of wealth. “When in comes down to it, the dollar value of a piece is often the most looked-at metric for art,” he shares. “Even Banksy, who does anti-capitalist work, is a really good businessman.”
Anyone interested in purchasing Sean’s work is thus faced with a choice. They either buy into the story of a young pop culture artist lamenting the ills of a system he’s benefited from (like Dr. Strange’s sorcerer supreme – who drew power from the dark dimension), or ignore the compositions of someone turning the iconic into the ironic.
But for Go, who can easily shift to a career in venture capital he has decided to paint the highest of values into works that sell (hopefully at high value)— opting to live the existence of someone who has chooses what is right over what is easy.
Real stories. Real people.
We believe that life isn’t about a binary of ones and zeros - but about the sum of our hopes and dreams, our struggles and heartaches, our tragedies and triumphs.
The things that unite us are far stronger than the things that divide us.
And those stories are why we are alike.