Going by his guts: Norman Crisologo is curating a major section in the upcoming Art Fair Philippines, employing art from a broad range of styles and origins. Photo by Joseph PascualĀ 
Culture Art

How Norman Crisologo became an art world force

His prescience about art, his innate understanding of what an audience needs, and his general IDGAF attitude has made him a sought-after curator, and one whose opinion and taste are valued by collectors. While he is a happy IG husband, he is definitely no Mr. Beauty Gonzalez.
Audrey Carpio | Feb 17 2020

The first thing that comes up when you google “Norman Crisologo” is this entry from a celebrity bio website that seems to be managed entirely by low-quality bots: “Norman Crisologo is a successful businessman. It is not particularly known about what he does and how he is so successful.” 

It then goes on to say that he only got famous after he started dating the actress Beauty Gonzalez. Other gossip sites label Beauty’s mysterious husband — who is at least two decades older than she is — as an art curator, which is more accurate; Norman is a businessman only in the sense that art is his business. For the upcoming Art Fair, he curated a large area of the 5th floor, working with theater director and set designer Ed Lacson Jr., who transformed a section of the parking lot into a set with the curved walls and arches of a sci-fi skate park.

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When I meet up with Norman at The Link to find out exactly what he does and how he is so successful, all the walls of the Special Projects section were still freshly white. By the time the fair opens, they will be covered in at least 15 different colors of jewel-toned paint, the backdrop to the works of several Filipino artists of diverse styles, ranging from young pop surrealist Gene Paul Martin, Bacolod artists Perry Argel, Joe Geraldo, and Neil Pasilan, Baguio fabric artist Carlo Villafuerte, mythic sculptor Salvador Joel Alonday, and queer performer Jellyfish Kisses on one end, and expressionist masters Onib Olmedo and Jaime De Guzman on another end.

“I actually started out as a painter. I was trying to figure out a way to make money,” says Crisologo.

“In between are the barbarians, the rowdy ones,” Norman says as he assigns berry to one wall and jade to another. “You know, the cool kids, not the mid-lifers,” he adds, making a playful jab at Alt Philippines, the breakaway group consisting of 10 of Manila’s top-tier galleries.  

The cool kids Norman refers to belong to the Art Fair’s Incubators program, which brings in art collectives like Robert Langenegger’s Project 20, the all-Bisayan artist space Giatay, and Limbo, the Poblacion midnight gallery — just a few of the creative and artist-run spaces outside the mainstream gallery format.

 

“Down with trickery!” 

The Art Fair founders are shaking things up this year, moving beyond their standard programming of the past. As Dindin Araneta, one of Art Fair’s co-founders explains, “From photography/still images, we have film/moving images. From talks, we have open studios which simulate artist studios where workshops will be held. From galleries, we have incubator spaces.” Giving Norman a free hand with Special Projects is part of the expansion. This year, he did away with the “boring” exhibition format of individual artist booths and redesigned the space so each artist’s works will be in view of one another, having a conversation.

At last year’s Art Fair, Norman curated the booth of artist Ian Fabro. It was darkly religious, somewhat of a Norman leitmotif. Incidentally, not many people noticed that the canto-like poem on the wall of Fabro’s booth was an acrostic—one that read “A bas la mystification” (French for “down with trickery"), a sly homage to David Medalla, who had protested the opening of the CCP in 1969 with a sign that said, “A bas la mystification! Down with philistines!” David Medalla, now considered a national treasure, was several parking spots away as one of the highlighted artists at Art Fair 2019. Fabro’s booth was having a secret conversation with Medalla’s booth.

The bad boy of local art? Crisologo is often drawn to works with a darkness in them.

As entrenched as he is in the art scene, Norman stays out of politics, art world and otherwise. “I’m friends with everyone and I try not to step on anyone’s toes. But even if I do, I don’t really care.” As proof that he really doesn’t care what you think, he still uses the same ridiculous email address (spankmenorman) he’s had since he discovered the internet. He has no social media accounts himself, but as a literal IG husband, and in the past a frequent art director for Preview and Esquire, he surely finds new pleasure in directing some of Beauty’s content, his happiest and most loving collaboration to date.

“I’m friends with everyone and I try not to step on anyone’s toes. But even if I do, I don’t really care.”

Normally, Norman is way into dark art. Not the dark arts—he’s just always been drawn to art with twisted or hellish themes, or works that border on the disturbing and strange. His new home with Beauty and their daughter Olivia has dialed down the darkness, but it’s still an art house through and through. How many other four-year-olds can say they have a curated selection of contemporary Filipino art on their purple walls?

 

“I knew all the matronas”

“I actually started out as a painter. I was trying to figure out a way to make money,” Norman says of his curatorial origins. “I knew all these matronas and all these gays. I thought, why don’t I paint?” 

Inspired by the works of Popo San Pascual and the spirit of “kaya ko ‘yan,” Norman picked up a brush and started painting. Ironically, his own works were cheeky and colorful. I managed to find online a rare photo of a painting he made in 1993, of a couple in bed with a grinning child in between them, titled “Natural Birth Control.”  He seemed to have a promising career, too, with eight solo shows and even a feature in Metro magazine titled “Two Artists to Watch Out For”— alongside Elmer Borlongan. He sold quite a number of works, back in the day when art was affordable.

Then life happened—Norman got married to his first wife Astrud Adriano, had kids, ended up working for the family business. He stopped painting, but by then he had become good friends with the artists who were starting to make the exciting and weird stuff, and he bought their works. He was an early fan of the Salingpusa group of Borlongan, Mark Justinani, and Karen Flores. “That’s how I started collecting—not as an investment, but buying stuff that I really loved. At that time when no one was buying, they appreciated the income.”

Throughout the ‘90s up until the early 2000s, there were only a few commercial galleries, which were small and found inside the malls. Starting in 2006, however, the Philippine art scene exploded, and nothing would be the same. That was the time Sotheby’s first came in. As an independent curator and collector, Norman worked with the auction houses, introducing them to contemporary Filipino artists, the artists he liked. He says, “A lot of all those young unknown artists who I squandered my money on, those were the ones I entered into the auctions.”

Nobody knows exactly what Crisologo's real business is, apart from the business of art.

These young artists, whose prices at the time were lower than the rest of Southeast Asia, quickly made history by reaching the million-peso mark and more. It turned out that Norman’s taste in art clicked with an international audience to the tune of at least a thousand percent in profit. The auction superstar was born (and along with it the art flipper) and names like Geraldine Javier, Nona Garcia, and Ronald Ventura soon became equated with the number their works could fetch. Ventura’s Grayground famously sold for USD 1,083,490 or P46.9 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2011.

It turned out that Norman’s taste in art clicked with an international audience to the tune of at least a thousand percent in profit.

Not everyone thought this was a positive development. “The Philippine art scene stopped being interesting around 2008, when the auction houses started dictating the style and market value of the art being made there,” the artist Manuel Ocampo opined in the Rogue November 2012 Art issue. “Local artists started being ambitious in the wrong way because of pressure from the market.” If he meant that money became the muse of many artists, he’s probably right.

For the lucky few though, it was a boom time for Philippine art. Norman, who had no previous experience with the stock market, began to see exactly how the art market operated: “It became so clear why some things are more expensive than the others, or what forces change the scene.” 

While the stock market is regulated by the law, the art market is held together by unwritten rules which ultimately serve to protect certain interests. It was like looking into the Matrix. He saw all the different pieces and he knew how to move them. But like every economic bubble, this too had to burst. “The era of the auction stars is done,” he says. “The market corrected itself. Andres Barrioquinto, Jigger Cruz, they’re the last of them.”

 

“Gut level instinct” 

Norman may be pragmatic about the machinations of the art market, but no one can accuse him of not being an art lover first and foremost. Erwin Romulo, co-curator of Art Fair’s film program, describes how Norman would always search out special exhibits, obscure galleries, even tribal crafts of remote villages during their travels. “He has this gut level instinct about art,” Erwin says, recalling how Norman came to own one of Maria Taniguchi’s earliest works. He happened to be at a bazaar where she was selling her drawings. She was eleven years old.

His prescience about art, his innate understanding of what an audience needs, and his general IDGAF attitude make Norman a sought-after curator, known for putting together visceral exhibitions with works that get under your skin. He’s straightforward about his purpose: “I want the show to look good, and the gallery to make money.” His shows are not backed by fancy research, academic concepts, or overwrought writeups—he leaves that to the “learned” curators—he goes by feel, by his current state of mind, by how the art speaks to him then and there.

Norman came to own one of Maria Taniguchi’s earliest works. He happened to be at a bazaar where she was selling her drawings. She was eleven years old.

In a 2017 interview with Igan D’Bayan for the Philippine Star, Norman revealed his thought process behind curating the Julius Baer-sponsored exhibit for Art Fair: “I chose works that would incite a reaction, put a little spice in the cocktails, a lump in their throats. I wanted to show that there was a world of art away from the superstars (even if just a few of them were represented). I purposely did not include titles and names; I wanted the viewing to be pure, and without preconceived ideas about the artists. A lot of the pieces were disliked—until they found out the names of the artists. That was the point of the show for me: to show the difference between buying for love and investing.”

Norman himself came to a point in his exhibit-going life where this became a predicament—should he buy art that he loves, or art that will sell? Art that talks to him or art that will increase in value? He’s since decided that if you spend over P100,000, you should start thinking about works that will at the very least maintain its value. Anything less than that, go get something for yourself.

Aside from curating for galleries, Norman finds himself advising art collectors on their purchasing. Apparently, there are quite a number of individuals out there who need help decorating the walls of their multiple houses and condos. As always, Norman wants to spread the gospel of dark beauty to the willing and hungry. “The art community now is huge! There’s just so much money being spent on ugly works.”

 

Photographs by Joseph Pascual