Jan 042015

Everyone says ‘I love you.’

But how many people will commission 83 Mona Lisas for you?

When your name is Mona Lisa, the jokes can sometimes write themselves. Grade school art class might prove particularly trying. Your smile might be subject to scrutiny, even in a pre-selfie world.

Of course, for some Mona Lisas, it’s not so bad. If you’re artist Mona Santos, you might even find a whole exhibit in your honor.

“The Mona Lisa Project” is a collection of pieces inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic masterpiece, commissioned by artist and gallerist Soler Santos as a sort of love letter to his wife, Mona. First shown in CCP’s Bulwagang Fernardo Amorsolo gallery in 2013 with 57 pieces, it has since snowballed into an 83-piece strong collection.

“It just came from a small conversation about Mona Lisa souvenirs and wondering why we don’t buy them,” Soler explains. “Parang, ‘Sayang!’ We decided to just buy small works from artists, so that we could build a unique collection and support local artists. We initially just asked for letter-size works, keeping in mind our funds and lack of storage.”

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For the project, Soler was able to assemble works from 83 of the local contemporary art scene’s brightest names: Allan Balisi, Lyle Buencamino, Gino Bueza, Zean Cabangis, Annie Cabigting, Froilan Calayag, Bjorn Calleja, Roberto Chabet, Jonathan Ching, Iya Consorio, Louie Cordero, Jigger Cruz, Don Djerassi Dalmacio, Kawayan de Guia, Bembol dela Cruz, Ranelle Dial, Beejay Esber, Jonas Eslao, Everywhere We Shoot, Dex Fernandez, Dina Gadia, Mark Andy Garcia, Nona Garcia, Sarah Geneblazo, Carlo Gernale, Edric Go, Randy Golapo, Raymond Halili, Troy Ignacio, Nilo Ilarde, John Carlo Jacinto, Geraldine Javier, Jon Jaylo, Pete Jimenez, Bree Jonson, Sam Kiyoumarsi, Robert Langenegger, Romeo Lee, Jacob Lindo, Dave Lock, Luis Lorenzana, Pow Martinez, Jason Montinola, Jason Moss, Raffy Napay, Elaine Navas, Kim Oliveros, Epjey Pacheco, Lynyrd Paras, Neil Pasilan, Raul Rodriguez, Arturo Sanchez Jr., Kaloy Sanchez, Carina Santos, Isabel Santos, Luis Santos, Steve Santos, Frederick Sauza, Yasmin Sison, Hamilton Sulit, Tatong Recheta Torres, Manok Ventura, Olan Ventura, Gail Vicente, Marija Vicente, Ryan Villamael, Tanya Villanueva, Alvin Villaruel, Liv Vinluan, Paulo Vinluan, MM Yu, Christopher Zamora, Cos Zicarelli, and Jeona Zoleta.

Since Nov. 22, 2014, the collection has been on view in Solaire Resort & Casino’s Art Preview wing, co-presented by West Gallery, one of Manila’s best spaces for emerging contemporary art and a gallery the Santoses happen to own. Of course, showing the collection in a non-traditional venue like Solaire also means opening it up to misinterpretation. At the project’s opening night, a woman went up to Soler to express her shock and dismay that they decided to “ruin” the “Mona Lisa.” That’s what art is, sometimes, Soler explains. “It can be divisive, so some will like it, others won’t. That’s not really a problem for me.”

He says, “The collection is really in progress, ongoing, so it’s always growing. Our friend, Popoy Vilchez, works with Solaire and he invited us to show the bigger collection in their new wing. The purpose was to show it to a bigger audience, and potentially to those who aren’t so familiar with art or the local art scene. Solaire provided a space for us, and also the exposure to a wider audience we don’t typically see at exhibits.”

As romantic gestures go, it seems bullish, if a little impractical. It’s not necessarily something done by two people with three adult kids and a decades-long marriage under their belt. (“Which means no food for us this year,” their youngest, Isabel, joked on Instagram.)

Soler won Mona over decades ago. They met in college, as students in UP’s Fine Arts program. He was a painting major. She was taking up viscom. They met through a common friend and he won her over through sheer force of charm (at least, according to him). Commissioning 83 “Mona Lisas” from 83 of the country’s best artists is unnecessary. But maybe that’s what makes the project so remarkable, so endearing, and why 83 of the country’s busiest artists didn’t think twice before taking part in it.

It’s a reaffirmation. It’s a renewal. And it’s unnecessary and over-the-top enough that it feels like the adult version of a high school junior asking his crush to prom with 1,000 paper cranes. It’s bearded Ryan Gosling building a house for absent Rachel McAdams. It’s Lloyd Dobler with a boom box over his head.

How many “Mona Lisas” does it take to say “I love you”?

Kahit isa lang naman ‘yan e,” Soler says, “basta galing sa akin.”

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You can view “The Mona Lisa Project” until Jan. 15 at Solaire Resort & Casino, Aseana Ave., Paranaque, Metro Manila. Follow @westgallery on Instagram for more updates.

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