“He was as singular as his work," says the author. Gabby Barredo in his studio, against his Asphalt installation, 2013. Photograph by Patrick Diokno
Culture Art

No one was ever like Gabby Barredo

A good friend writes about the privilege of the artist’s friendship, and the singular gift of being allowed into his private world 
Trickie Lopa | Jan 12 2020

Fifteen years ago, Gabriel Barredo led me through his doors, two translucent acrylic panels overlaid with faces, foliage, and filigree, and we became friends. I felt so privileged to finally see his home—which was also his studio—the fabulous, theatrical, maximalist setting of his hauntingly beautiful, fantastic world. 

At that time, I asked him to make me a table. And of course it turned out quite unlike any other that my family and friends had ever seen. 

Year 2011 at his studio, ready to deliver commissioned pieces. It took him two years to complete the wall bound work, and another three months before he could actually bring himself to part with it and install it at the author's house.

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It spun and sashayed and mesmerized, imbued with magic like everything else that came out of Gabby’s hands. We became friends over delicate adobo sandwiches, morsels from his kitchen, wine (for me), and SMB Pale Pilsen (never anything else, for him), served sometimes atop a smoky polymorphic piece of glass set on stainless steel stumps, or beneath shimmering crystal tears. Dinners at his place always called for drama, but throughout the years, I don’t think I ever experienced the same backdrop twice. 

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Sometimes, we’d eat across the street, perched on benches at his workshop that never had nothing going on, ensconced amidst life-sized figures that glittered and glimmered, and wall pieces that chimed as they sprung open.   

In those days, I led another life, consumed by fabrics, and clothes patterns, and daily sales targets. Then Art in the Park and Manila Art Blogger happened. I met more artists and saw much more art. But no one else was ever like Gabby. He was as singular as his work.

"Asphalt" in Barredo's studio

I had the full measure of the man when we asked him to do something for a pipedream called Art Fair Philippines. When he committed, he contracted his soul. For the next eight months, I saw Gabby once or twice a week. I would sit in his workshop, nodded when he wanted affirmation, shook my head when disbelief was called for, took his calls late into the night when he needed to take breaks. 

He agreed to come on board because as a friend, he believed in me, in what we wanted to do for the fair. That was pretty humbling. But once he said yes, the kind of artist that he was took over: every detail, every aspect, needed to hold up to his standards or he’d ruthlessly cut them, no matter the amount of work he’d already expended. When he first started, I couldn’t quite conceive how everything would turn out. In the end, he gave us Asphalt, the 30-foot long immersive, enthralling, multi-media work that introduced him to a whole new set of art lovers and allowed Art Fair Philippines to take off.    

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In a recent article enumerating the key art movements of the past decade, online platform Artsy cites the blockbuster response to experiential art exhibits, large-scale installations that envelope viewers in a variety of media, delivering multi-sensory, Instagram-worthy environments. Witness Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms or teamLab’s borderless. Take a look back at Gabby’s exhibits, and see how he had delivered all that before they turned into buzzwords for the 2010s. Every exhibition—from 1999’s Anima at Hiraya Gallery that called for the closure of UN Avenue for Butoh dancers, to [IN] Visible in 2005 at Ayala Museum,  Visions at the SOKA Art Center in Beijing in 2008, to Asphalt, and his last major work, Opera, 2016, at Silverlens Gallery—incorporated original music, collaborations with filmmakers, performative aspects. 

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To simply call his work kinetic doesn’t do him justice. Yes, he incorporated moving parts into sculpture. But he used movement as just one of the layers that transported us to disturbing commentaries on lifetime experiences, let loose from his imagination as Baroque, surreal, eerie realms.

Barredo at The Link on January 31, 2013, ready to install "Asphalt" for the first edition of Art Fair Philippines 2013

People called Gabby a recluse. He did shun the art scene’s social whirl, eschew his own openings, make himself unavailable to friends for months at a time. But he never disengaged from life.  He lived for his daughter, Tintin, taking pride in raising her from babyhood. He fostered a community that helped him create art, a group of workers painstakingly schooled to live up to his meticulousness. He looked after their families and they rewarded him with loyalty, years of devoted service. 

Barredo and the author's kids, Anton and Martie, in 2014. The pieces at the back were his initial forays into what would later turn into "Opera"

He had friends in the neighborhood, like Nonong, who lived next door in the same suburban subdivision in the South of Metro Manila. Nonong, a kindered soul, saw him in the late afternoons for the bottles of beer that would signal the start of Gabby’s working day.

A very dark photo of him and "Asphalt" at his studio in late 2012.

He certainly kept up with politics and world events, following the news as assiduously as he chased after the perfect polish for a particular pane of glass. I would get texts from him telling me to tune into CNN when something struck him, most recently when the Hong Kong protests turned intense. 

Gabby retreated to the cocoon of his own community to keep his insecurities at bay.  He always wondered if his work was good enough, always questioned himself,  sought to push himself further. Three years ago, crowds flocked around his self-portrait at Art Basel Hong Kong’s Vernissage, and I took photos to let him know. I spent late that night, after all the get togethers, nursing a gin and tonic at a bar in Old Central, on the phone with him, convincing him that yes, he had made himself proud again. 

At Barredo’s one-day wake at Santuario de San Antonio, Wednesday. His remains flanked by two bottles of his favorite drink: San Miguel Pale Pilsen. Behind it a Barredo kinetic sculpture.

At the time of his death last week, we hadn’t seen each other in two years. Yet, I wouldn’t say we didn’t keep up with what was happening in both our lives. Once or twice a month, he would call, and we conversed for hours. A truly generous friend, he never stinted on words of encouragement. He seemed to know when I needed it most, especially when it had something to do with my own work. He had things he had to sort out. The only way forward would be to tune out the negative noise, rise above his doubts, and carry on doing what he loved and believed in. He told me to do the same.

I also knew he was working on a major piece, and he wanted it to surpass all he’d done before. Gabby wasn’t ready for it to be seen just yet. I finally did on that Monday morning after I got a call from Abbie, his housekeeper. She urged me to rush over, because Gabby had collapsed. I didn’t get more than a glimpse, though. I couldn’t bear to see him in that state. 

So we waited outside his gates, Maymay, Ruby, Erwin, Lior, his nieces, and all his workers, posed on swiveling red stools he had repurposed to mimic the clouds, until they came to take Gabby away.

 

Trickie Lopa is the co-founder of Art Fair Philippines