Sean Go: The NYC-Based Filipino Renaissance Man on Pop Appropriation Art and Trends in the Art World

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The moniker ‘renaissance man’ or ‘renaissance woman’ harkens to a time when multidisciplinary and generalist approaches to learning were common among those who worked in creative, scientific, and commercial fields. The term does not apply to those who go a mile wide and only an inch deep; rather the term describes someone who is an expert in many fields and knows how to use their uniquely comprehensive perspective to innovate, push culture forward, and better society – think Leonardo Da Vinci. While there are certainly a handful of men and women who rise to this level of genius, they are, historically, few and far between.

Oftentimes, creators and entrepreneurs of a minority ethnic background, gender, or sex who are multifaceted in this way, unfortunately, get boxed in by the establishment they are attempting to disrupt or contribute to. As an old guard of mostly older white men persists across many industries, the establishment often views these minority creatives through their own contextual gaze. Appealing to the viewpoint of the critic class, not the creator, this phenomenon can be seen in the art world through the prevalence of work that emphasizes struggle and oppression. While processing and sharing trauma through art is authentically transformative and powerful, the modern incentive structure perversely favors the non-minority art consumers’ experience of understanding someone else’s trauma at the expense of the creativity of many minority artists. While white artists have more space to create whatever inspires them, the establishment art industry infrastructure disproportionately rewards minority artists for creating art explicitly about their struggle or oppression. The leveling down of opportunities for minority artists’ works that focus on other themes and are less easily understood by a majority non-minority critic class, is unfair to the artists and does a disservice to the entire industry.

Sean Go is a true renaissance man and multidisciplinary visionary. With seven degrees and a successful resume in finance, the NYC-based Filipino artist is using his unique perspective to create compelling art that is bright, funny, and accessible at first glance as well as profound upon contemplation. Influenced by greats like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Salvador Dali, and Maurizio Cattelan, Go is disrupting the art world with his ‘pop appropriation’ art style.

Pop Appropriation art, according to Go, ‘democratizes’ the playing field for art consumption by using familiar pop culture images to make new ideas intelligible. Go likes to include pop culture references that may bring back personal memories of childhood and nostalgia as that enables the viewer to create a connection to the art as well as invites them to make it their own as a protagonist. As an artist who strongly believes there is no one correct way to interpret a work of art, Go hopes consumers of his art will internalize his work in their own unique ways drawing inspiration from his clever and eccentric juxtapositions.

The young artist spent the first 18 years of his life in the Philippines. As is the case with many cultures across the globe, a large majority of Filipino society values STEM and business education above the arts since it is seen as the economically responsible path. Go distinguished himself by pursuing multiple degrees, accumulating a highly diverse and impressive portfolio of skills along the way. To this point, Go has three degrees from UC Berkeley, two degrees from Emory, one degree from Columbia, and one degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Honoring his upbringing Go earned multiple degrees in business and law in addition to honoring his passions earning some degrees in creative fields. In total, Go is truly a modern renaissance man with Bachelor’s Degrees in Economics, Business, and Geography as well as Master’s Degrees in Business Administration (MBA), Law, Architecture, and Art. Despite his unparalleled breadth of knowledge and a unique melange of expertise, growing up with the societal bias towards economic success, Go built a career in finance. True to form, Go worked at top institutions like HSBC, Ernst and Young, Singapore’s OCBC bank, and Grant Thornton; most impressively, Go founded a well-respected Hedge Fund in 2018 before recently transitioning to art full-time.

Go is acutely aware that an artist’s life is not always filled with fame and fortune. Regardless, he is in it for the long haul. Despite the societal and familial influences at play, Go always felt connected to art. Go’s grandfather was an art investor exposing him to the masterpieces of Filipino abstract expressionists from the 1950s and other famous art that was sold at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Leon Gallery. Awash in the work of great Filipino artists from an early age, Go – in addition to developing a spiritual bond with his home nation – was inspired to continue their tradition of abstract commentaries on social life, politics, and poverty leveraging a “vocabulary of color.” Additionally, as a member of a large family with four highly talented siblings, Go sought out a way to develop a unique sense of self early in his life. As the most artistically inclined of his siblings, his parents began to affirm and positively reinforce his natural skill. Especially as one of the younger siblings attempting to distinguish himself from his overachieving older brother, Go’s lifelong affinity for art runs deep.

After accumulating success in finance, Go was reminded of his passion for art with a stark lesson in the fragility of life. Unfortunately, one of Go’s close friends passed away from brain cancer at the young age of 28. Seeing his highly intelligent and athletic friend lose her life force in the way she did, Go wanted to venerate her memory by pursuing his lifelong dream, art, instead of continuing to work for Wall Street.

Following his gut and honoring his passion by investing in his artistic career, Go cannot help but create work that expresses his authentic voice as he is driven by pure childlike love for the medium and not industry incentives. Of course, as a proud Filipino immigrant living in New York City, Go’s work harkens to his indigenous culture and speaks to his experiences (oppressive and empowering) as a minority in America. He takes the space he needs to create the art that speaks to him. It is important to note that he was not privy to much of the American socio-political dynamics until moving from the Philippines. Despite his age, experience as an immigrant, liberal education, and career as a creative, Go does not describe himself as “super woke” as some of his peers may. The young artist embodies the dialectic between the American dream and the immigrant experience. He is interested in these societal conversations as an immigrant of minority descent who has found success in America; however, he also understands that his anecdotal experience does not negate the serious instances of systemic inequality that endure today. With this mindset, Go rejects being put in a box. He follows a true artistic north star pointing toward his internal muses instead of popular trends and establishment values.

As family and friends don’t support artists until they reach critical acclaim and critics don’t praise artists until another colleague does, it is notoriously difficult to break into the art scene. However, Go has already broken out of the vicious circle. After only one year, Go has put on 5 shows in 3 different countries: two shows in America (one in New York City and one in Atlanta), two shows in Indonesia, and one in Manila, the capital city of his native country the Philippines.

Much like the interplay between Go’s dark and brooding look (tall figure, long hair, black clothes) and his inviting personality (genuine curiosity, warmth, and magnetic appeal), there are many layers in his art to peel back. Just as the old masters relied on the common cultural language of the past – Greek and Roman mythology – to create thought-provoking and barrier-breaking art, Go uses the common cultural language of the day – Disney characters, comic book superheroes, et cetera – to convey captivating critiques of Filipino culture, capitalism, and more. While the use of cartoon characters in this way may seem frivolous, Go draws the viewer in utilizing these culturally significant and well-known characters with the specific intention of making a nuanced and novel point of view more accessible. Go has used the images of Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella, and even biblical figures in clever, subversive, and ironic ways to make various points about the colonial mentality that still exists in the Philippines, the emptiness of capitalist society, how history shapes the perception of beauty, and more.

Some of Go’s most inspired pieces include his “Captain America + Jeepney,” “Make a Man out of Ditto,” “Barbie Wawa,” “7 Dwarf Origins,” the “Tea is the Way” / “Boba” series, and his “Biblical Expressions Series.” These works only scratch the surface of his extensive catalog.

The “Captain America + Jeepney” piece is a commentary on the lasting effects of colonialism on Filipino culture and minds. Go quips that there is a widespread dream amongst a majority of Filipinos to move to America. The spirit of that dream is captured by this specific piece. The work presents an American-made decommissioned World War II Jeepney, the vehicle used throughout the Philippines for public transportation, with Captain America detailed on its side and juxtaposed against a background of 3 larger Captain Americas. Go calls attention to the Filipino bias towards the United States, exemplified by the usage of these WII Jeepneys for public transportation. This sentiment is heightened by the addition of the patriotic superhero.

Go’s “Make a Man out of Ditto,” is a playful mix of Pokemon and Mulan references. The piece takes the ironic “Make a Man out of You” song describing Captain Shang’s challenging training program as the female Mulan is disguised as a male to fight in the army as a baseline. “Make a Man out of Ditto” suggests that the Pokemon Ditto, “a spineless, pale, pathetic blob,” would be the ideal recruit for a man like Captain Shang. Despite the funny references, one could interpret this as a scathing commentary on the values of the military and the patriarchy.

Barbie Wawa” is a subliminal piece commenting on consumer society and beauty norms. Barbie Wawa features a crying Barbie doll who is an Asian woman against a backdrop that resembles a vintage Shanghai-style tobacco advertisement poster. The artwork’s name doubles as a pun and an onomatopoeia; ‘Babi Wawa’ is Chinese for “Barbie doll” and “Wawa” resembles the sound a baby makes while crying. By presenting the children’s doll as crying, one could interpret this piece as a commentary on the negative effects of the unrealistic beauty norms forced upon us from childhood. With the inclusion of the tobacco advertisement style, one could also interpret this piece as a commentary on how capitalist and consumer norms contribute to these unrealistic beauty standards and our feelings of lack of self-worth. Finally, as the barbie dolls in this series are all Asian, one could interpret this piece as a commentary on how Asians, and other races, are often left out of examples of beauty in American pop culture.

With his “7 Dwarf Origins” collection, Go creatively suggests not-so-Disney-approved alternative origin stories for the 7 Dwarfs featured in Snow White. As each piece in the collection represents one of the 7 dwarves, each work is as vibrant and funny as the next. Taken holistically, this collection uses slightly crude humor to critique some of the biggest vices normalized in our capitalist society. The “Hi Ho Doc,” piece displays Doc Dwarf abusing an opium pipe, harkening to the corruption of the for-profit healthcare system and the subsequent abuse of legally sanctioned opioids plaguing America. Among the works featuring the other dwarves, “Bashful” is seen with his signature innocent-looking puppy dog eyes, but he is wearing a ‘pornhub’ branded dad hat. This piece is a hilarious visual reminder of the prevalence of yet lack of acceptance of and shame associated with pornography.

In Go’s “Tea is the Way” and various boba-related works, the Filipino artist lightly pokes fun at the spirited tea-related arguments in the Asian community while comically noting that the beloved Mandalorian culture in Star Wars is essentially a cult. Comparing how some tea enthusiasts, especially boba tea enthusiasts, are essentially in a cult in the same way the Mandalorians are, “Tea is the Way” features the famous Mandalorian Boba Fett drinking a boba/milk tea. Of course, the fact that the classic Star Wars character shares the same name as the tea makes the reference all the more enjoyable when it clicks.

Finally, the “Biblical Expressions” collection shows Go’s penchant for clever references beyond cartoons. “Samson the GOAT,” a captivating mix between Basquiat’s style and Egyptian hieroglyphs, illustrates the powerful biblical character Samson as a goat. This piece references the acronym G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time) reserved for the best athletes in various sports. Hilariously, Go subverts expectations; instead of presenting the goat version of Samson as a G.O.A.T. with lush and elegant hair like Samson and the animal typically have, Go presents a hairless and frail Samson resembling his biblical fall from grace after losing his hair.

As a highly-talented renaissance man committed to leveraging pop-culture characters to create visually appealing art that is as accessible as it is thought-provoking, we expect Sean Go to have a bright future in the industry. With a prolific body of work, a signature style, and a funny yet visionary perspective, it is almost unbelievable that Go is a newcomer to the art world. To learn more about the NYC-based Filipino artist, visit Sean Go’s website, online store, Instagram, and Twitter or check out one of his shows in NYC, LA, or Manila.

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