MANILA -- Isa Lorenzo and Rachel Rillo couldn’t have chosen a more unlikely time to open their modest Manila art house, Calle Wright.
Art Fair Philippines, the biggest commercial venue showcasing contemporary art in the country, is having its vernissage in the same week. An important Joya and a rare Magsaysay-Ho will be up for grabs at the much-publicized Leon Gallery auction on the weekend.
As opposed to these two largely buyers-driven undertakings — and even Lorenzo and Rillo’s own Silverlens gallery in Pasong Tamo Extension — Calle Wright is exclusively an exhibition space.
“It’s not a gallery per se in that it’s not really for selling work,” says Isa. “[But] More for seeing, experiencing art works.”
In a money-driven atmosphere, Calle Wright is a romantic idea. “I always wanted to do something that would point to the experience of art as opposed to going somewhere and buying something,” says Lorenzo.
In this art house, shows will run for three months, as opposed to the regular one-month run in galleries. The first show is “Never Is A Promise,” where the featured artists are Gary Ross Pastrana and the Singaporean Heman Chong. The show is a veritable walk-through of their relatively young careers, featuring pieces each of them are most known for vis a vis pieces they’ve never shown.
Video by Berwin Coroza
In the Calle Wright rule book, the current artists decide who the next featured artists will be. “It becomes a passing of experience,” Lorenzo says. “So that they also are part of the continuing narrative of the space.”
Romance is never more evoked than in Calle Wright’s “old Manila” address, 1890 Vasquez Street in Malate, where Lorenzo grew up. Many of the residents in the street have been around since the war. The poet Virgie Moreno lives here (not far from the Malvar atelier of her recently departed brother Pitoy), and so does a former Supreme Court associate justice, uncle of theater legend Bibot Amador.
On the same stretch, there’s a convent, the old Vermont Tower, the Taoist temple, and the Redemptorist Church. Kim and Fely Atienza are residents, in what was once designer Joe Salazar’s home and atelier. Another distinguished ex-neighbor is Conching Sunico, the society hostess, who threw her famous soirees here back when the street was still Calle Wright—after the architect Luke E. Wright, a city planner who designed the eponymous park’s landscape in Baguio.
The house-turned-art space sits in the middle of quite a sizeable chunk of Lorenzo property in its block. Beside it is the “main house,” a war survivor, home to the gallerist Lorenzo’s 86-year old mother Alice. It was rebuilt in the late 40s by National Artist Pablo Antonio; its garden designed by IP Santos, Father of Philippine Landscape Architecture.
The ground floor interior of Calle Wright, with its original tiles. Berwin Coroza
Everything was restored to its 1952 state with updated lighting. Berwin Coroza
The original doors and grillwork restored for 2018. Berwin Coroza
The main entrance to the art house. Berwin Coroza
The structure benefits from the shade of an old acacia tree from the street. Berwin Coroza
The facade of the modest art house. Berwin Coroza
Even the pocket doors and ventanillas were restored. Berwin Coroza
A streamlined interior aesthetic from the '50s. Berwin Coroza
The second floor landing. Berwin Coroza
Detail of the Calle Wright backyard. Berwin Coroza
The Calle Wright structure was originally built by Lorenzo’s grandfather for one of his daughters in 1956. With the help of artist Pastrana and his wife Ae, an architect, it has been restored to its original form, from its cornices down to its pocket doors and ventanillas.
“We stripped it so we can see the bare bones of it,” says Lorenzo. “We restored the grill work, fixed the flooring, changed the lighting, and fixed the backyard.”
“Are we gonna change the tiles?” Lorenzo recalls asking partner Rillo. “I think they’re horrid.” The two decided to keep them, together with their brushstroke pattern and beige-and-maroon shades. Otherwise, they thought, the space will look like any other gallery.
Which it is not. With Calle Wright, Lorenzo aims to stir a movement. Having glimpsed Malate’s former beloved incarnation as creative hub, where designers ran bars or their ateliers, where artists converged after, say, a performance at the CCP, or a show at the Hiraya Gallery, she wants to restore a former piece of its artistic soul — in some way following in the heels of the still-standing art space 1335 Mabini.
“It’s a movement towards these kinds of experiences wherein you engage with art and artists through a historical journey of their work, and a historical atmosphere,” Lorenzo explains. “To look at art as a living thing with a past and a future. I really want to give [Malate] a movement towards art so that there is something to do here that’s more than [going to] a Korean restaurant.”
Except for this week, Calle Wright is open only on weekends beginning Friday from noon to 7pm.