In 1996, eager to re-brand himself, the elder Tan bet the house to buy the shares of the Manila Archdiocese in Monte de Piedad Savings Bank. Since old man Tan was desperate to return to the banking business, he agreed to Cardinal Sin’s share purchase condition of “no due diligence.”
He soon learned he had bought an insolvent bank with non-performing loans greater than its equity. Eighteen months after the purchase, the bank collapsed and old man Tan was blamed for the failure.
Fred moved to Singapore and had built a small business in buying and selling shophouses. His small business was doing all right. But when his father called him for money in 2014, Fred sold his business to help his father. Ironically, this help was merely a drop in the ocean.
Fred’s life had been marked by a reversal of fortune, trauma and turmoil. He lost his grandmother to a protracted illness and his grandfather to a sudden stroke. Two of his friends, who suffered from depression, took their own lives. All these had forced Fred to confront his own mortality and contemplate on what he truly wanted to do with his life—to paint.
Growing up in a traditional Chinese family, he was always expected to follow a certain path—to start a business and achieve great wealth and success. But Fred had a different mindset, and loss had put things into stark relief. Painting was both comforting and exciting in itself, and it gave him a chance to heal.
Fred humbly considers himself a painter, not an artist. He was a late bloomer and was almost 50 years old when he started drawing in 2009 and painting in 2010. It took a circuitous route for him to embrace his true self.
Wanting to detach his personal history from his art, Fred assumed different names and even personas. His first pseudonym was Toro. As Toro, his third solo exhibition, Over Carbs, was particularly memorable. According to curator Ricky Francisco, “Over Carbs is a critique of the power of mass media to create celebrity and infamy.” This is contextualized in a series of portraits of celebrities who have allegedly been involved in sex scandals.
Held at the Ayala Museum’s Artist-Space, the opening night was attended by celebrities, actors, and models. It was a raucous party, with a brass band and pole dancers for entertainment. Yet in a quiet corner, a video clip played of Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, giving a speech promoting unity and peace. Chaplin had been branded a Communist by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He was prevented from working in Hollywood and was exiled from the US. The inclusion of Chaplin’s speech was central to Fred’s critique of fame and celebrity (and in the same token, power) and how it covers a multitude of sins. It also posited that nothing is more scandalous than telling the truth.
Cheekily, Fred also poked fun at how carbs are seen as a bad thing, as perhaps being worse than sex scandals. He took on the persona of a celebrity that night and acted in a boisterous manner, as opposed to his quiet and reserved self. The whole exhibition was a performance in itself, a conceptual piece.
After Toro, Fred used another fictitious name, Luis Balmes. It was the combination of two names—Balmes street in Quiapo, where he had lived, and Luis Machuca, his grandfather’s landlord and a third generation member of the family that produces Machuca Tiles. The persona of Toro and Luis Balmes allowed Fred to hide his identity and the name he felt was damaged. It also helped him put on a façade of confidence.
Francisco gave his own take on Fred’s reinvention: “He started out with the full belief that art right now is not just about art; it is also about marketing.” Perhaps Fred thought that the persona of Toro and having all these shows was a way to be legitimized and accepted in the art scene. “But I’ve always believed he was an artist. I still do,” adds Francisco.
After these forays, Fred was encouraged by Francisco and Galerie Francesca’s Susanne Tiausas to be true to himself. For her to represent him, Tiausas said, he would have to stand behind his own work.
Last year, Fred Tan had his first solo exhibition to his name at Galerie Francesca. The title reflected his simple, down-to-earth nature: Not a Sage, Not a Saint. Looking back on his life, he came to realize that it was better to go with the flow and accept one’s fate, rather than imposing personal wishes and desires. Sometimes, success and failure are contingent on factors beyond our control. To express his newfound philosophy, he allowed paint to flow by itself. He would choose colors and play around with gesso to create textures, but he mostly let the paint flow and take its own course. In the process, he acquired a deeper knowledge of his medium and discovered that each paint color has its own properties. This informed how he used his materials.
Since then, Fred Tan has participated in other exhibitions, as a featured artist of Art For Everyone at SM Megamall, along with Fil Delacruz and Toym Imao, as well as a group show with Fitz Herrera and Atty. Joy Rojas at Galerie Francesca. This August, he will have his own solo show at the SM Art Center, to be presented by Galerie Francesca.
The August exhibition will show a throughline between Fred’s first solo show and his new works. Francisco said they will be selecting textured Expressionist paintings that convey the artist’s emotions and his connection to the material. Conceptually, the works explore the subjectivity inherent in abstraction, which is open to interpretation. Abstract art can mean anything you want it to mean—it’s in the eye of the beholder.
Painting has been cathartic for Fred— a way to let go of inner turmoil and come out the other side. Though his works are fueled by intense emotions, the end result is calming, soothing and clarifying. Indeed, art can heal the wounded soul and transform pain into beauty.
Now, Fred Tan is ready to make a fresh start. And there’s no turning back.