The Manila-based gallery Silverlens, which opened a New York outpost last September, has taken on the estates of two major Filipino American artists from the postwar era: Carlos Villa and Leo Valledor. Villa’s estate is represented in partnership with Anglim/Trimble in San Francisco.
Lifelong friends who called each other “cousin” as a term of endearment, Villa and Valledor were both born in San Francisco in 1936 to Filipino parents who had recently migrated to the United States to work on farms in Northern California. They both spent time in New York, with Valledor moving there first, and they both moved in the Downtown avant-garde scenes during the 1960s. They ultimately returned to the Bay Area and taught at the now defunct San Francisco Art Institute. Valledor died young, in 1989, and Villa, a mentor and teach to generations of SFAI students, died in 2013.
“Their shared history is so crucial as a starting point, rather than the style of their work or the materials they used,” Isa Lorenzo, Silverlens’s co-owner, told ARTnews in a recent interview. “It’s really a migrant story before anything else. Both artists were searching for an identity which they really couldn’t find because they were not born in the Philippines. Looking for their roots, they had a connection, like an umbilical cord, to the Philippines.”
Despite similar life trajectories, Villa and Valledor’s approach to art-making couldn’t be more different. Valledor was at the vanguard of Minimalism, making exquisite shaped canvases in a crisp hard-edge abstract mode. He was a founding member of the influential artist co-op Park Place, alongside artists like Mark di Suvero, Robert Grosvenor, and Forrest Myers.
“Leo always wanted to be part of the New York [scene]—and he was for a while, but he also felt rejected by it because he wasn’t white. And it’s as simple as that,” Lorenzo said.
Villa’s outré art has long defied categorization. He frequently used his body in making works that have been variously described as ritualistic, often looking to Indigenous cultures across the world and drawing on his deep engagement with objects in the ethnographic collections of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
“They’re two sides of the coin,” Katey Acquaro, Silverlens’s New York director, said. “Their work is so different, but they are both so important to the history of modernism. They were two people pushing something forward in this iconoclastic way, one dealing with identity, one not at all.”
A story often recounted in Villa’s biography is that he once asked an art school professor about Filipino art history, who told him there was none. Villa’s response to that, Acquaro said, was “not only ‘Am I going to create something to be written about,’ but ‘This is what I imagined it looks like.’ He incarnated it. He wrote it into history, and it was his world he created.”
Villa was recently the subject of his first major career retrospective, which debuted at the Newark Museum of Art last year and then traveled to the Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Art Commission. That exhibition came about after a trove of unknown works by Villa were found in an attic crawl space in his studio after his death. Lorenzo caught the exhibition in San Francisco, saying, “When I saw Carlos’s work, it made so much sense. I knew him immediately, even without knowing who he was.”
Shortly afterward, Silverlens opened its New York branch, and that’s when Rio Valledor, Valledor’s son and Villa’s stepson, approached the gallery about representing the two estates, saying he had been following the gallery for quite some time.
“I started Silverlens in Manila in 2004, with the hope to bring artists from the Philippines and the region out into the world,” Lorenzo said. “What we found is that there are a lot of artists of Filipino heritage all over the world, so we started to really look for artists of this diaspora. These are exactly the artists we wanted to find.”
Next month, Silverlens will include Valledor’s work in a group show at its Manila space, and the gallery’s booth at Frieze New York will be a solo presentation of Villa. This fall, the gallery will present a two-person exhibition of Villa and Valledor, who, despite their close relationship, never exhibited together.
Lorenzo said that in taking on these two influential artists, the gallery hopes to reposition their stature within the canon, and most importantly have more people know about their important contributions. “One thing I’m equally excited about is the opportunity to introduce these artists to Filipino audiences. They don’t know these artists—they never had shows in the Philippines,” she said. “We can’t wait to see the ripple effect of this because it’s going to be really special.”