Art & Design

This Ain’t Your Mickey Mouse: Sean Go Talks About Remixing Pop Art

Artist Sean Go mixes universal characters with the uniquely Filipino.

For New York-based artist Sean Go, cartoons and comic book characters are more than just entertainment—they’re also quite effective for exploring different ideas and themes.

Born and raised in Manila, Go remixes popular characters and even brand logos to produce what he has calls “pop appropriation art.” Take, for example, his recent piece “Taho Trooper,” which reimagines a fearsome Stormtrooper as a (friendly?) neighborhood magtataho; or, on the cheekier side, his “Playmouse” series, which portrays Mickey Mouse caught red-pawed looking at the pages of a Playboy magazine.

Despite being relatively new to the art scene, Go has made quite the splash in the industry, with showings at the inaugural MOCAF (Modern and Contemporary Arts Festival) in Manila, as well as at Art Moments Jakarta and Indoseni’s “Wave to the Moon” exhibition all in 2022. More recently, Go’s art was exhibited at Xavier Art Fest last January and at the International School Manila Art Show the month after that. 

We caught up with Go and talked about his style, influences, and creative process. Read our full interview below:

GIST: Your work investigates the intersectionality of colonialism, capitalism, and pop culture. Why are these themes of particular interest to you?

SEAN GO: Colonialism is such an important part of our history whether we like it or not. The Philippines has such a complex relationship with colonial powers, having been colonized three times. Growing up in the Philippines, I saw how our version of capitalism churned out skin-whitening products, K-dramas, foreign films, and music, and how global imports were often perceived as higher quality. Subconsciously, these mechanisms hurt our sense of national identity and self-love, as we aspire to attain foreign standards and be judged by foreign standards when the Philippines has a lot to offer in its uplifting culture and hospitality.  

Capitalism is a subject that I like to investigate because throughout its history it has seen a lot of praise and contention. The narrative in the United States and Europe is mostly about how capitalism has led to certain dangers like increasing inequality, and a lot of art that is made today echoes this sentiment. At the same time, this system has led to an advancement in technologies and lifespan. The dilemmas of capitalism tell us a lot about human character—that the solutions we create to solve our past problems create new problems, and that life is imperfect, as clichéd as that sounds.

The pop culture alphabet is a means to communicate with viewers. Icons that are universally recognized, that stand for different values, are fun to juxtapose against scenarios that make us laugh, then think twice.

Who are the biggest influences (people, movements, styles) behind your visual language?

Modern art spanning WW2 to around the 1980s was very influential for me. De Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, and other artists of this movement showed us that art was not only about skill. It could represent ideas such as defying the status quo. Gestural abstraction, which used aggressive brush strokes, passionate swooshes, and childlike handling has influenced the way I approach my work.

I love using pop culture references and symbols with highly contested meanings. Comic book characters for example are subjective in that they may stand for a range of values that people view differently. For example, Mickey Mouse can represent capitalism, consumer culture, and childlike optimism.

For pop artists, I love Roy Lichtenstein and for contemporary artists, I think Maurizio Cattelan is a fun artist who always challenges the meaning of art (with his banana taped to the wall and his golden toilet titled “America”).

Dali, Picasso, and Ed Ruscha are a few of my favorites as well. Dr. Alexandra Schwartz, my professor, works extensively with Ed Ruscha.

My visual language will likely still evolve, but in the meantime, it is characterized by strong brushstrokes, a lot of primary colors, and bold eye-popping characters, all packaged in a way that appears simple but packs a strong meaning if you take some time to analyze the clues within the piece.

How would you describe your style? What drew you to them?

Ideas always are the root of the medium that I choose to engage in. My style as a pop appropriation artist is influenced largely by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Daniel Arsham. Like these artists, I take existing visual literature and spin them to my own liking, often in a satirical way that flips the original meaning of the work onto its head. I think art should be fun. The process should be one where it is okay to make mistakes and to learn from them. I’ve made many mistakes but eventually, the trials would help me refine my skill and create better works in the future.

I use mostly acrylic paint, but I’ve designed sculptures, my own alphabet and font style, and created basketball hoops too! I’m excited to have more brand collaborations, so if you know brands who would like to make some pop art products let me know, haha!

Can you describe the evolution of your style over the years? Are there any important phases in your career you would like to highlight?

In the beginning of my career, I was driven by capitalist critiques. I studied economics at UC Berkeley, and so I saw the triumphs and discontents of a system that, for better or for worse, remains our primary method of socio-economic governance. Capitalism has increased our quality of life as measured by the Millennium Development Goals (for the most part) but has other unintended consequences of late-stage capitalism. One of these is the search for meaning in a world where you feel increasingly insignificant. Art to me is a way to capture these collective lived experiences.

I am also greatly intrigued by religion. Like most people, my personal faith has seen times of strength and weakness. Bible stories are gripping in their ability to teach us lessons and can be used as case studies that we use to inform our decision-making. The challenge with the Bible is that it often opens more questions than answers, and there is no ruling body that can state which rule or story holds precedent when addressing modern conundrums. 

I’m also interested in combining pop culture characters with Filipino elements like food, transportation, and clothing. I think that the Philippines is often overlooked as a nation of artists. However, in the near future, the country will get more traction in the international art scene, thanks to some heavy hitters like Jaime Ponce De Leon of Leon Gallery International and my dealer Derek Flores of DF Art Agency.

What are the messages that you want to send viewers through your work? What responses do you hope to provoke?

I have several general themes in my collections, including the willingness to view stories from an alternative lens, the plights and false glories of our material world, how beauty bewitches and comes to terms with your ancestral roots, and how escapism distorts our reality.

One of the narratives that run in many of my works is the idea of flipping the script, which is another way to represent “to not judge a book by its cover.” I’m also intrigued by the idea of potential and possibility, and the multiverse. I aim to create characters like Humpty the Iron Egg (Ironman in Egg form), Darth Shrek (a Shrek and Star Wars Crossover), and Transformer Tomas (Transformers and Thomas the Train, with a Filipino spelling).  In a way, these represent how you too can mix and match your own life, and be defined by multiple aspects, not just one.

In a way, these represent how you too can mix and match your own life, and be defined by multiple aspects, not just one.

A positive response where people are inspired to act is my ideal situation, but I think just feeling something when they see the art is a win—whether it’s shock, joy, disgust, anger, or love. Actually, for my 7 Dwarves series, I’ve been told by some people that they hate it. Other people don’t like how I am “ruining” Mickey’s innocence by making him read Playboy, but I think the ideas that these represent are indicative of how our society functions today. The production of knowledge consciously or subconsciously is through the content we consume, hence the Playmouse represents how Disney shapes perceptions of beauty.

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Sean Go’s works will be shown at the Secret Fresh Gallery Solo Exhibition in June 2023.

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