Marz Aglipay

Viewing art is one way to consume an artist’s work. Like commercials, art is free for all to consume if we accept the message it conveys. Pop-art tends to explore ideas of consumerism that sometimes it blurs the lines between what is commercial and what is art. This is usually why brands pander to artists as the arts tend to raise a brand’s status by association.

Jstranzhur’s Joy is one of the works from the artist’s second show Monosodium glutamate (MSG) at Kulay-Diwa Gallery. MSG is a collection of abstract portraits that personifies fast-food brands. It is a follow up to the artists preoccupation with understanding consumer culture, a concept which he explored in his first solo show SRP.

Branding is key in appreciating MSG in its entirety as the artist uses it as a device to lead the viewer to cull their preconceived notions and biases towards a brand. The artist bases his interpretation on his personal relationship with these fast-food brands from a consumer standpoint, a springboard for the viewer to reflect on their own thoughts and feelings towards these brands. Meanwhile, brand image is crucial in understanding the significance of Joy and why it stands out in the exhibition.

Jstranzhur’s invitation to examine how we, as a consumer, have acquiesced to the modus operandi of capitalism comes through as a curious inquiry rather than a condescending one. The artist does not complicate the interpretation of the brands included in MSG. With Joy, it is obvious through the choice of colors, let alone its title, that give away the identity of the fast-food chain the work alludes to — a kind of recognition that comes particularly easy to a Filipino viewer.

Looking at Joy momentarily suspends what the viewer already knows about the brand giving the them some room to appreciate the artist’s expression. Joy personifies a brand whose image is anchored on childhood nostalgia and sense of family, thanks in part to the brand’s well-crafted commercials. In addition, most Filipino consumers can effortlessly identify this brand as a national symbol, one that brings pride for being the country’s champion of all fast-food chains. The painting liberates its subject from its restrictive corporate design identity that ad agencies cannot freely interpret.

Apart from the visual cues on the work, the viewer must take into account that the work is also about who consumes the brand. Keeping this in mind lets us dissect Joy by considering the realities of a consumer who’s buying power is different from one’s own. This perspective invites other meanings to come into the picture even if it is not visually expressed on the canvas.

Considering the brand’s image and the Filipino consumer’s understanding of this brand, one may ask questions like: Will the work bear any meaning to a minimum-wage earner who treats this brand as luxury? Does the artwork affirm the assumption that it is a luxury brand? Does the meaning of the work change for a spectator who has been previously employed by this brand, wouldn’t you wonder if they ask themselves “Does this work spark joy?”

Beyond the bright aura that Joy exudes, it contains polar opposite of meanings that divides the average Filipino consumer from those who barely have the means to afford a meal from this fast-food chain. And at the same time, Joy could mean absolutely nothing to someone who has never come across this red bow-tie-donning figure. Despite this caveat, this piece retains its populist charm to Filipino viewers no matter where they are in the world, regardless of how they consume Joy.

Marz Aglipay is an arts and lifestyle writer. She has covered events such as Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Jog, and Viva ExCon among other art fairs in Asia. When not writing, she chronicles everyday life by making stamps on Marz.Today.