Penman No. 398: Bringing New Life to Old

Penman for Monday, October 12, 2020

BEING MARRIED to an art restorer who regularly salvages battered or tattered Amorsolos, HRs, Botongs, Kiukoks, and the like and turns them into objects of joy and wonder again, I know what it’s like to give new life to something that at one point seemed utterly ruined. 

Not that I can do it myself, as I’ve often been better at messing things up than fixing them. It’s a shame to admit, being a PSHS alum and an aspiring engineer at some wistful point, but I’m generally worthless around cars, for example. I can fix a flat if it comes to that, but anything else will have to be solved by a phone call to the tow truck. Neither is carpentry my strong suit; I’d probably break a saw before it could cut through a two-by-four, or lose a finger.

There are a few things that I’ve learned to repair—many old fountain pens, for example, though not all, as some require highly specialized skills and tools. Pens from the 1920s up to the 1950s that used rubber sacs or bladders are pretty easy to fix, with some help from a hair dryer to soften (but not melt) the plastic, and a dab of shellac. I can also DIY some basic computer fixes, like replacing laptop hard drives and batteries, making sure not to lose any tiny screws by mounting their heads on upside-down tape. As I collect pens and, yes, old Macs, this has not only saved me a mint of service fees but also amplified the pleasures of collecting and connoisseurship. 

But I reserve my admiration for people who really know and love what they’re doing, are extremely good at it, and who are struggling to preserve a dying art as threatened as the objects they minister to. 

We live in a repair-conscious society; unlike the throwaway Americans and even the Japanese, for whom labor could cost more than the appliance itself, we will fight to keep our TVs, fridges, aircons, and electric fans chugging until their last breath. We suffocate our new sofas with plastic so they will live 100 years.

But repair is one thing, and restoration another. You can always buy another 60-inch TV if it can’t be fixed, but not another 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, or another signed copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, or another 1922 Corona 3 folding typewriter, at least not that cheaply or that easily.

Happily and thankfully, we still have people who, like my wife Beng, possess the arcane skills required to bring new life to old. And “old” is the operative word here, because the things they care for and care about tend to be far older than their owners and decidedly appeal to the senior set, although they’ve begun to acquire a certain charm for some millennials eager to connect to some thread of history.

Take vintage pens, for example. For those jobs that amateurs like me can’t do, there’s J. P. Reinoso, a retired bank executive, who’s turned his hobby into a full-on pen spa (yep, that’s what he calls it). Sheaffer Snorkels from the 1950s and Parker Vacumatics from the 1930s and 1940s will almost certainly defeat the uninitiated, but JP has the know-how and just as importantly the parts for them. (Sadly and surprisingly, modern piston-fillers like Montblancs and Pelikans will often require a long and expensive trip back to the factory in Germany for servicing, although some basic repairs can also be done here, subject to parts.)

For my old books that have begun to fall apart—and I mean books from as far back as the 1600s and 1700s, although books from the early 20th century tend to get more brittle and fragile because of their acidified paper—I turn for help to Josie Francisco of Bulwagang Recoletos, who uses gossamer-thin Japanese paper to make a crumbling page whole again. Another genius in this department is Loreto Apilado of the Ortigas Foundation Library, which accepts book restoration jobs.

Local watch aficionados swear by Andrew “Andy” Arnesto, whose shop at Makati Cinema Square has become a mecca for savvy collectors and users seeking to revive their vintage Rolexes and Omegas without having to pay boutique rates, especially for the simplest fixes. 

And what about those typewriters? I’ve written about him here before, but the guy we call Gerald Cha, based in Quiapo, is still the go-to person to get your Lolo’s venerable Underwood 5 or Smith-Corona Silent Super going clackety-clack again. Beyond giving your machine the basic CLA (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment) service, he can also repaint it to your specifications—like he did with a dull-olive 1959 Olympia SM3 that I fancied turning into my “UP Naming Mahal” standard-bearer, with its maroon-and-cream body accented by the original green platen knobs. 

As I quoted Hippocrates last week, ars longa, vita brevis—art is long, life is short. Taken another way, a bit of the restorer’s art can lengthen the life of your dearest toys and possessions.

(Privacy concerns inhibit me from giving out their numbers, but a little Googling should go a long way.) 

Penman No. 397: Vision 2020: An Artist Responds to Covid

Penman for Monday, September 28, 2020

WHILE SHE was undergoing therapy for depression, the celebrated American poet Anne Sexton explained why she kept doing what she did: “Poetry, after all, is the opposite of suicide.” That she ultimately and tragically succumbed to her inner demons, like her friend with whom she shared revelations and martinis, Sylvia Plath—is, in a way, almost irrelevant: what matters is that she fought back, and beautifully, leaving behind the luminous corpus of her poetry.

History tells us that this is what many artists do, under great stress and even in the face of direct threats to their lives: they use their art to resist death and annihilation, as if to say “I am here, I matter, and I will survive.” It is, of course, the art that survives, both as a testament to the moment and subject of its creation and as the indelible handprint of its creator, left on the cave walls of Time. The Greek physician Hippocrates put it well in his reminder: “Ars longa, vita brevis.” Life is short, but art is long—art endures, art is forever.

Today in 2020, in the face of a horrifyingly catastrophic pandemic that has brought the world to its knees and claimed close to a million lives, the artist is once again challenged to respond to the global crisis in an intensely personal way, both as an act of self-affirmation and as the inevitable chr0nicler of one’s times. Like a traveler surveying a landscape ravaged by death and disease, the artist seeks to depict not only the obvious carnage and the accompanying cacophony of grief but also the larger patterns and movements of people in a stricken society, as well as the startling efflorescence of goodness and hope here and there amid the suffering.

From the first scientific drawings of the human anatomy onwards, there has been a long tradition of connections and interactions between art and medicine or art and science. Artists have been credited for their uncannily accurate portrayals of disease; reports exist of how dermatologists identified two dozen skin lesions on the subjects of paintings at the National Art Gallery in London, how Caravaggio depicted goiter, and so on. 

But when it strives for or achieves sublimity, art is more than illustration, and rarely is the disease itself the subject, but rather the excuse to draw attention to the responses to it—of the directly afflicted, of the physician, of the family and the neighbors, and of us the onlookers; in other words, of society itself as a complicit agent in the process of infection and perhaps also of healing. 

Indeed, if there is anything that the pandemic has achieved, it has been to force us to think of ourselves as a society, as one organism, the infection of one part of which could lead to the death of all. But despite the political rhetoric of “healing as one,” it has not made us think as one or act as one—yet; we remain as fractious as ever, trapped in feudal modes and mindsets of privilege and power. Death should have been the Great Equalizer, reaping patrician and peon alike, but yet again this plague, like its predecessors, has merely revealed and emphasized the disparities and infirmities that were there all along, with the affluent able to convert the long lockdown into albeit boring staycations and the huddled poor—already socially distanced from their neighbors across the wall long before Covid—struggling to subsist on donated rice and sardines. 

And so the artist steps back to ask: where is the body, and what is the disease? Is it just the intubated patient who is ill? 

In a new exhibit of works that he has prepared for Galerie Joaquin (www.galeriejoaquin.com), the painter Juanito Torres takes us through many of the tropes that the past six months of lockdown have embedded in the Filipino psyche: chiefly, that of the physician as hero and savior, most strikingly portrayed in “Darating Din ang Bagong Umaga,” a painting steeped in iconography—the doctor sprouting angel’s wings standing victorious over a demonic virus and holding a cross that also serves as the staff of Asclepius, entwined with his healing serpent. It’s St. Michael the Archangel, treading on Satan’s dragon. In another work, “Lupang Hinirang,” Rizal, Bonifacio and other heroes are dressed as doctors raising the Filipino flag, like the Marines on Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima. 

But most of the other paintings are decidedly contemporary, a dramatically enhanced rendering of the new normal, with citizens wearing gas masks in the most ordinary places, seemingly resigned to their fate.

These are works that clearly demand interrogation, beyond the admiration that their technical excellence will generate. In reaching for metaphor, almost to the point of parody, Torres raises the question of whether we might have overdone the “hero” bit, not because they’re not heroes, but because they may not want to be. As it is, some doctors and medical workers have resisted if not refused the “hero” tag, not out of modesty but because it has become an excuse of sorts, an easy way out for the non-heroes to underperform and lay the burden of saving society on the medical frontliners. The banality of gas masks in everyday life implies acceptance of—if not surrender to—an occupation army. But notably, the frontliners in “Tagumpay,” who toss their medical masks into the air in joyous celebration, are wingless and entirely human—as if to say, this is when we will win, when we can be again as we were, as we truly are.

We know that that will not be easy, and between now and then we may have to draw and depend on mythologizing and self-enlargement to slay the dragon in our midst. The true St. Michael may be the artist yet, and the true dragon may be even larger than corporeal disease. 

(The physical exhibit will be staged at Galerie Joaquin at the UP Town Center from October 21 to 31, 2020.)

Penman No. 395: Missing the Magazine

Penman for Monday, August 31, 2020

FEW OF us might have noticed, but one of the casualties of the Internet age has been the magazine as we knew it—the general-interest magazine, which usually came out on weekends, often as a newspaper supplement. With the decline in print-media readership and the depredations on economic and social life brought on by the coronavirus, magazines around the world have been shutting down, although of course that decline long preceded Covid. Some survive in vestigial form, or have gone online, but are nowhere near the familiar and colorful periodicals you couldn’t wait to pull out of the Sunday paper.

People my age still remember the Sunday Times Magazine, the Asia Magazine, the Mirror Magazine, and others of their kind—including, of course, the old standalone Free Press and Weekly Graphic magazines. Unlike the specialized glossies of later decades, they had something for everybody, weren’t just trying to sell you something, allotted several pages for serious literature, and were worth saving and passing along. I spent many an hour in the barbershops of Pasig thumbing through the Free Press and imbibing Nick Joaquin’s reportage on crime and politics while trying to figure out the poetry (too abstruse for my Hardy-Boys years) and gawking at the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the society and entertainment pages. 

With martial law and its aftermath, everything became either overtly political or seemingly in denial of anything gone wrong. The age of gadgets was upon us, and we devoured magazines devoted to the minutest differences between July’s and August’s cellular phone. The pretty ladies remained on the cover, of course, but largely as purveyors of dresses or some other thing; the innocence was gone—or perhaps we had simply lost ours in the interim.

My interest in magazines became a bit more professional in graduate school when my professor in Bibliography, an old-school gentleman named Dr. Kuist, told us that he had done his dissertation on The Gentleman’s Magazine, said to be the first publication to call itself a “magazine” (from the French for “storehouse”) in 1731. Despite its title, it was no girlie mag, and contained a gamut of articles of interest to everyone (a copy I have from November 1773 features an ad for “The Frugal Housewife, or Complete Woman Cook” and articles on “Arguments in Favour of Rolling-Carriages” and “Description of a Machine for Making Experiments on Air”).

Many years ago, sometime in the early 1990s, when my passion for all things vintage began to be awakened, I spotted an ad in the Classifieds of a newspaper offering a stash of prewar magazines for a reasonable sum, and I drove off in my VW Beetle to a corner of San Juan to retrieve them—three or four milk-can boxes of them, all yellowed and crumbling—from a family that would have thrown them away otherwise. They were mainly copies of the Sunday Tribune Magazine from the 1930s, and some copies of the Sunday Times Magazine from a bit later. 

I continued to add to what had become a de facto collection—copies of the prewar Philippine Magazine and Philippine Touring Topics, among others, as well as issues of Tagalog periodicals like Lipang Kalabaw and even a 1911 issue of La Cultura Filipina. I used to put copies of these on my coffee table when I had an office in UP, to surprise and amuse my visitors with—sorry, folks, don’t have the November issue of the Tatler yet, but here’s a travel mag from 1934.

Make that February 1934, when Philippine Touring Topics contained—like most good magazines of the time—a combination of substantial articles, classy advertisements, and a gorgeous Art-Deco cover. Featured were articles on Igorot folklore, Mindanao fashions, Philippine hardwoods, the gypsies of the Sulu Sea, Philippine tobacco, a voyage from Manila to Bali, and celebrity travelers. (As usual, it was the ads I found most fascinating—for the American President Lines, the 1934 Studebaker, and Alhambra cigars.)

My greatest reward in flipping through these yellowed pages is discovering things I never knew about—things not too remote to be ancient history. In my July 4, 1948 issue of the Sunday Times Magazine, for example, is an article on the winners of that year’s Art Association of the Philippines painting competition. The top prize of P1,000 went to the “basketball-crazy” Carlos Francisco (who, says the anonymously catty commentator, is also “an amateur, not-so-good photographer, avid for picnic photos”); P750 for second prize went to Demetrio Diego; P500 for third prize went to Vicente Manansala “by a nose” over the P250 fourth prize to Cesar Legaspi; two honorable mentions—good enough for artists’ materials—went to the stragglers Diosdado Lorenzo and H. R. Ocampo. Elsewhere in the issue is an article on the all-but-forgotten winner of a 1946 contest for the Philippine Independence Hymn, won by a composition of Restie Umali. On the cover is a radiant Rosie Osmeña, being walked down the aisle by her dad the former President, with an accompanying spread on her wedding trousseau.

What’s not to like? When the Internet goes down—and someday it just might—these magazines with their pictures might just be our best chronicle of life and of the Philippines BC (Before Covid).

Penman No. 370: A Collection and a Collaboration

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Penman for Monday, September 16, 2019

 

YOU KNOW that you’ve reached the hilltop, just in time to view the sunset, when they start compiling your works into hefty one-volume collections that could take a very long vacation on a very lonely island to plow through. Apparently I’m at that point, because Anvil Publishing has just released Voyager and Other Fictions: The Collected Stories of Jose Dalisay, a 500-page compendium of 43 stories written and published over four decades from the 1970s onwards.

I had been quietly at work on this collection these past few months with Anvil general manager Andrea Pasion-Flores and her team, and I was elated to see it being sold at the recent Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, and later at National Book Store, Anvil’s parent company. Let me just share what I said about the project in my brief preface to the stories:

“These stories span forty years, from 1975 to 2015, during which I turned from a lanky 21-year-old to a potbellied senior, and everything in between. I’ve chosen to present them in the chronological order of their writing, as best as my challenged memory could manage, hoping that this sequencing will reveal some patterns of growth and change in the way a writer selects and treats material as he himself is shaped by life and time.

“The inclusion of some juvenilia may be indulgent, but my excuse is that it may be instructive and inspiring (albeit by negative example) to the young writer who must be made to believe that better things come with age.

“I came to fiction in English from a background in drama and screenwriting in Filipino. This helps explain my interest in scene-setting and dialogue, in the unseen currents of thought and feeling that cross synapses and much larger spaces between people.

“While creative nonfiction occupies most of my time in retirement, largely for a living, nothing exhilarates me more than writing fiction—not the novel, for which I never mustered anything resembling affection, but the short story, which I find both exacting and exciting in its compactness.

“I’ve lately often argued that the best antidote to fake news is true fiction, because only fiction—not even journalism—has the power to draw us out of ourselves, out of the present, into that chill place where Honesty resides. Fiction redeems and saves the writer as much as it exalts the reader. That realization has been the personal reward of my work for these past forty years.”

After writing so many books for other people—I always say that rather than live to write, I write to live—it’s a balm for the spirit to see and review all my stories in one place, and to be reminded of fiction as my true love, the thing I most enjoy doing although the least materially rewarding. Indeed I’ve often said that my stories—invariably of lower and middle-class Filipinos like me—are the biographies of those people who can’t afford to hire me to write about them, whose lives are often dismissed as “ordinary” but which are in fact eventful and dramatic in their own fashion.

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I had a second reason to rejoice with the launch of my newest book, Why Words Matter, last Saturday at the Vargas Museum in UP Diliman. With lovely and haunting illustrations by Marcel Antonio, the book is based on a TEDTalk I gave last year in UP about why we read and why we write, and how words can kill but can also heal. It’s being published by Gigo Alampay’s CANVAS (The Center for Art, New Ventures and Sustainable Development). Two other books were also launched alongside mine—a children’s counting book by artist Ioannis Sicuya, and one about horror stories from the martial law era that distills affidavits by claimants of martial law abuses into three sentence tales, illustrated by Renz Baluyot.

While this book was produced as a special, limited art-book edition (only 500 copies, all hardbound), CANVAS will allow the free, non-commercial distribution of material from the book, with proper attribution, in any medium, as part of its program for cultural literacy.

I must say that I’m awed by and deeply grateful for Marcel’s exquisite artwork (just as I appreciated Jordan Santos’ delightful cover design for Voyager). Not since I collaborated with Jaime Zobel on an art book titled The Island almost 25 years ago have I had such a visually engaging publication. While I firmly believe that every author—never mind how sharp he or she may imagine himself or herself to be—needs an editor, and even as I’ve welcomed most of my editors’ suggestions, I’ve also sometimes given my publishers and designers a hard time, having stubborn and stodgy ideas about how my books should look. I’m relieved to have had a very pleasant experience with the publication of these two new books, for which again I thank Andrea and Gigo for putting together. It’s a bracing reminder to this old man that, to a happy few, his words still do matter.

(Voyager is available at National Book Store; to order Why Words Matter, please email info@canvas.ph.)

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Penman No. 369: Meaning in the Many

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Penman for September 2, 2019

 

IN MY fiction writing classes, until I recently retired, I often began the semester with what I thought was a generous offer, or actually a challenge: I would give flat 1.0 to anyone who could submit a well-written story with a happy ending—not some contrived finale with God scooping the hero out of harm’s way on the last page, but something the reader could believe in, something that would give reason for hope in the human condition, or at least the human future.

How many students, do you imagine, found their way to that happy ending and to that glittering 1.0 all these years? None, not a single one. It wasn’t for lack of talent—I did hand out a few 1.0’s for other reasons—but it seems that a believably happy story has become the hardest thing to write in these times in which the political has compounded the personal. As my students’ stories keep repeating, people feel trapped in situations and relationships that diminish their self-worth. In the age of the Internet, which is supposed to connect strangers instantaneously across the planet, many feel lonelier than ever, unable to keep up or blend in with the crowd, which always seems made up of happier, smarter, and richer people.

Everyone says they want the truth, which others—including governments and peddlers of this and that—are laboring to obscure, but when they do find it, they can’t deal with the consequences. The only ones smiling are those in power, who feel they can get away with murder, because no one else is strong and whole enough to stand up to them. As someone else sagely noted, despots feed on people’s despair.

In recent conversations over coffee with friends—chats overcast by a spate of deaths in the literary family and by a growing despondency over our political situation—the question was inevitably asked: so what can we do? How can we recover and offer hope, and find some happiness amidst hardship and despair?

To cut a long and complicated discussion short, I’ve resolved that, at the minimum, my aim will simply be to survive all the bad people and the bad stuff. I shall keep myself healthy and sane, and do things that not only give me personal pleasure—an admittedly selfish but vital element of happiness and well-being—but also help others, which can yield even greater satisfaction, as you find meaning in the many.

I know that that’s easier for me to say and to execute, as a 65-year-old retiree who’s been through enough, has hit most of his life goals, and could croak tomorrow without too much commotion. Easier, that is, than a 22-year-old with a troubled home life, a shaky job that barely pays for gas and fares, and the crushing pressure to conform and be another nobody.

But it’s certainly true that for my generation, we were ever aware that the world was larger than ourselves, and that it didn’t owe us a living, so we had work and fight for everything, and while we bitched like hell about the general crappiness of life, we were thankful for every scrap that fell our way, and prepared to fight and bitch some more the next day. We sought out kindred spirits and sang songs together, finding solace in community and in the sobering realization that many others had it worse. We found relief from our personal troubles by relieving the greater needs of others.

That may all sound peachy and preachy, platitudes that roll smoothly off the tongue forty or thirty years after one’s last rolled papaya-leaf cigarette or shot of watery gin. But it’s true: we tried to be as strong and as tough as we could, individually, but didn’t mind admitting to a soft spot here and there, maybe even turning that into an affectation (dare we say an art) like poetry, or music, or, for others, activism and public service. Whatever we had, we shared with an audience. And if sometimes we didn’t even get so much as a thank-you or a polite couple of claps, well, we could always say we belonged to a cool and tight fraternity of the underappreciated, like Poe and Baudelaire. Misery loves company, but we didn’t just stay miserable—we made something out of it, something even approaching bliss.

So in line with my new mantra of starting local and starting small, Beng and I will devote ourselves to family and community, beginning with our apu-apuhan Buboy, who’ll turn three this month, working with his parents to ensure that he’ll get a good and sensible education while we can help it—not just in school, but around the house and at the dinner table. I’ll be telling him things like “Respect food, and finish what’s on your plate. Eat fish and vegetables. Love cars—toys or real ones—but respect pedestrians. Respect working people, your parents most of all. Do things yourself. Do the right thing even when no one’s looking, and even when everyone else is doing wrong.”

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There’s reason for hope if we each do the right thing in our own lives, and not yield too easily and too soon to the clamors of submission and self-annihilation.(There’s always somebody else who deserves to go before we do.) We are not alone.

Penman No. 359: Retrieval and Repatriation

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Penman for Monday, June 24, 2019

 

CHATTING WITH a friend about my growing collections of old books and paintings the other day, it struck me how so many of my Philippine-related items were sourced abroad, mainly from the US, Spain, and the UK. In other words, these materials left the country one way or the other ages ago, and are only now being repatriated by those like me who pick up other people’s throwaways with a gleeful passion. And beyond just wanting to acquire some new old thing, we collect with a special mission—to find, retrieve, and restore valuable or at least interesting pieces of Filipiniana, so they can be enjoyed by another generation of Filipinos.

I have friends who have the kind of checkbooks and connections that allow them to score and bring home stray Lunas and Hidalgos from some obscure Spanish estate or farmhouse. I’m glad that players like them exist to compete with the high rollers at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but I’m clearly not in that league, so I look for far more plebeian objects: books written by Filipinos or about the Philippines, and paintings by Filipino artists.

The books are far more plentiful than the paintings, of course. At the turn of the 20th century, following the American occupation of these islands, there was great publishing interest in accounts of America’s first imperialist adventure, as well as in depictions of life in the new colony. Easily the most available antiquarian books you can find on the Philippines will have to do with that period, sporting triumphal titles such as the large two-volume Our Islands and Their People (1899), War in the Philippines and Life and Glorious Deeds of Admiral Dewey (1899), and Under MacArthur in Luzon or Last Battles in the Philippines (1901). My best acquisition in this department is the huge, elephant-folio-sized Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines (1900), which has superb illustrations, but quite frankly, as a Filipino reader, I find the propagandistic prose barely tolerable, with only my indulgent humor to carry me through passages deploring our “numerous piracies and cannibalistic feasts.”

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I’ve had more fun and a deeper sense of satisfaction tracking down the foreign publications of our literary masters like Carlos Bulosan, Manuel Arguilla, Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, and Bienvenido Santos. Like many writers of their generation, they saw publishing in America as a form of validation, and while we may argue today that we needn’t look to New York for approval, you can’t deny that surge of pride when you see those names in, say, a 1953 issue of Partisan Review alongside the best of the West.

It was, in fact, my discovery of an issue of Story magazine from the early 1930s some 30 years ago, when I was a graduate student in the American Midwest, that fired up this enthusiasm for retrieval and repatriation. That issue contained the Baguio-based Sinai Hamada’s iconic story “Tanabata’s Wife,” and I had the pleasure of presenting his family with that copy years later. I would stumble on the odd book about Dewey and his exploits at antique malls for 50 cents, and bring that home. In Edinburgh years later, I found a postcard of Filipino women, and turned that into a story titled “We Global Men.” Sometimes you just have to look very closely; scanning some antique documents being sold online, I spotted a reference in a 1578 travel book to “von der Spanier mache in den Philippinischen Insuln,”and was able to pick that up for a few euros.

Most delightful have been the paintings that I’ve come across on eBay and other auction sites—among them, a purplish treescape by the great Jorge Pineda from 1937; a patriotically themed harvest scene by P. T. Paguia from 1945; a moonlit near-monochrome by Cesar Buenaventura from 1956; and a Cavite seascape by Gabriel Custodio from 1965. Probably brought over to the US by American servicemen or by tourists looking for souvenirs, and less regarded by their next owners, these artworks turn up like flotsam on the shores of eBay (or shopgoodwill.com, where the Custodio appeared, being sold out of a Goodwill store in Spokane). And how do I know they’re not fake? The answer is, I don’t, not until I actually have and see them, but then I’m a poker player, and quite used to going all-in on a solid hunch. (The Pineda was a tricky gamble, but it’s the original frame from the period—with the seal of the well-known but long-defunct frameshop in New York—that provided the validation).

I’m not the only person on the hunt for these lost treasures, so they don’t necessarily come dirt-cheap, and shipping poses special challenges, but holding them in your hands after they’ve crossed decades and thousands of miles brings a matchless thrill. Like Filipinos themselves—the Ulysses of this age, global wanderers who inevitably come home—these pieces best belong where they are loved.

 

Penman No. 351: The Fake, The Good, and the Beautiful

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Penman for Monday, April 29, 2010

 

AS I’VE mentioned before, I’ve taken to collecting a bit of Philippine midcentury art over the past few years. You won’t see any Amorsolos, Kiukoks, Botongs, or Ocampos on our walls, because I simply don’t have the kind of loose change you need to bring home even one of those dazzlers. But I take pride in having put together a small but decent gathering of works mainly by Amorsolo’s students and juniors—typically pastorals by such gifted painters as Gabriel Custodio and Elias Laxa, depictions of a lost landscape that relax me and remind me of a time when—to use a phrase brazenly stolen by its opposite—the true, the good, and the beautiful prevailed.

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Someone I know had the unfortunate and rather embarrassing experience of trying to help a friend dispose of some masters’ paintings—excellent examples of their kind that the friend had bought years earlier in good faith—through an auction house. The auctioneer was initially delighted to receive the works, but upon closer inspection raised small but troubling questions about the pieces (as they were of course obliged to do, with many millions and their reputation in the balance). Eventually the works had to be pulled out because they simply couldn’t be authenticated, which is one short and polite step away from saying that they’re, well, probably fake. They could look good and even be beautiful, but at the end of the day, they’re still fake.

This reminded me of the controversy that followed a big university’s mounting of a retrospective show of one of its most distinguished alumni, only to be told that a few of its prized exhibits were somebody else’s handiwork.

Ironically, I have to sheepishly confess to being taken in by a seller purporting to sell an old painting by this very same master at a bargain price—which, being new to buying art, I jumped at, after examining all the visual and physical evidence before me. The style was correct, as was the subject, including the little tell-tale touches that artists tend to populate their signature works with. The corners of the painting were thick with dust and the natural accretions of age. I knew there was a 50-50 chance I was being taken for a ride—the seller was offering no guarantees, no certificates of authenticity, so I wasn’t going to get my money back—and I hemmed and hawed for a bit, but it was finally the dust that suckered me into a deal; if I didn’t take it that minute, someone else would, so I might as well gamble. I was elated for a few hours, and then I began to do more visual research online, until I began to realize, with a crushing certainty, that I’d just bought a fake, because of one small but vital detail that the painter had gotten wrong (which I’m not about to divulge here, and which I’ve since spotted in other offerings of the same artist).

Even more ironically, of course, I’m married to one of the best art restorers and conservators in the country—but she can’t, doesn’t, and won’t authenticate artworks, knowing both the scholarship and the science required to do the job properly and credibly. The problem isn’t only that Certificates of Authenticity (COAs) can sometimes be too easily secured or bought from less than stellar sources, but also that COAs themselves have been faked. (If you can do a reasonably good copy of a masterwork, it shouldn’t be too hard to fake a piece of paper and a signature, right?)

With all the big money sloshing around in the art market these days, it’s easy to see how and why art forgery is also a booming sub-industry, going by what I’ve seen and heard out there. A persistent story that’s made the rounds is that of a warehouse-sized factory where an artist who’s made a name for himself, in his own right, has been assisted by apprentices in churning out fakes.

To be fair, it’s been going on since at least Michelangelo, whom scholars point out indulged in a bit of forgery himself, copying older works and passing them off as originals—an act generous critics would call a “triumph over antiquity.” You can read the full, fascinating story of history’s most notorious (or, to put it another way, most talented) art forgers here: https://bit.ly/2eWwQhI.

I wish we had a repository of artists’ signatures, organized by date or period. I’ve had good luck doing research online, where auction houses keep visual records of well-known artists’ works and sales figures. But proper authentication has to go beyond signatures and gut feel.

One friend closely related to a National Artist wants to set up a scientific laboratory for professionally authenticating art works, so that we don’t go simply by sight or the word of the artist’s relatives and friends. This could involve, among others, undertaking a chemical analysis of the materials used, comparing them to data stored in a bank that will also have to be, of course, set up and maintained. You’d think that this idea should fly easily among gallery owners and art patrons, but you’d also have to wonder how willing some people will be to subject their collections to microscopic scrutiny.

As we should’ve learned from the days of Michelangelo to this age of Twitter, the truth may not be beautiful, and what looks good may not be true.

Penman No. 300: Mysteries of Art (1)

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Penman for Monday, April 30, 2018

 

 

I’LL ASK my readers to bear with me as I explore and try to solve, in another two-part series, some mysteries of art.

Alongside my recent love affair with old books, I’ve rekindled an early and abiding interest in art, particularly in paintings of a certain kind. My wife Beng, of course, is an artist—a watercolorist, a dreamer of waterscapes and landscapes—who’s also an art restorer and conservator, so the two of us have been fortunate to come closer to the works of the masters than most gallery hoppers. And I mean close, as in half an inch away from the tip of one’s nose to an Amorsolo or a Botong or, when we visit museums abroad, to a Rembrandt or a Tiepolo, because Beng can’t resist examining the minutiae of the painting’s restoration, often prompting a frantic museum guard to shriek, “Step back, Madame!”

We enjoy most schools and styles of art, from El Greco and Turner to O’Keefe and Matisse, but—as you can gather from those names I just dropped—our sexagenarian sensibilities might have a hard time cozying up to the likes of Basquiat, whom we could try to understand and appreciate, like we were taking an exam for a Humanities class, but not hang above our bed. (I’ll receive those boos now from my hipper friends.)

I myself have been veering closer, in my creeping senescence, toward something I can only vaguely describe as a midcentury romanticism—an imagined age of innocence before the Second World War, and of optimism after, like the war never happened, like no war could obliterate. Perhaps it’s my form of escapism from the madness of the present, but I’m drawn to landscapes with bamboos rustling in the breeze, to sunsets bursting with fruity promise, to rivers teeming with lilies, to beaches without people. Over the past few months, I’ve been picking up art pieces—paintings and prints—in this old-fashioned mode.

Given my UP professor’s salary, I have to work within a very limited budget, so I collect by sight rather than by name. This means that a painting should enthrall me—I should feel a rush of excitement, or a pang of melancholy, a cry of delight, the minute I see the piece; I should want to think about it again, to have it intrude into the most inconvenient moment of some mundane preoccupation. It might make me want to know more about the artist after—not necessarily before—I buy the painting.

I felt that surge last month when Beng and I drove out on a Saturday to a corner of Pampanga to view three small paintings I had spotted online, being offered by a picker. They were unsigned—so forget finding some mislaid Amorsolo—but they exuded rustic charm, a harking back to a lost provincial Eden. All my seller could say about them was that he had acquired them as a batch with a fourth and larger one, in the same style, that he had sold earlier, and that other one was signed “Serna 1944.” Serafin Serna (1919-1979) was, indeed, a painter of nature, a student of Amorsolo; most significantly, his brief biography online mentioned that Serna often didn’t sign his works. So the tantalizing possibility remains that my pastoral paeans were done by his hand, and they will be so attributed in our home gallery, pending proof to the contrary.

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Not long after, pretty much by the same route (although this one led to a gas station in Parañaque), I picked up two other little gems of the genre—landscapes done in 1957 by Gabriel Custodio (1912-1993), who I was ashamed to admit I knew nothing about until that instant. But again, encountering Custodio (another student of Amorsolo) reminded me of how important it is to scour our backyard for obscure treasures—many hidden, but others in plain sight.

Imagine my exhilaration when, two Saturdays ago, Beng and I attended the opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s fabulous new exhibit, “Fascination with Filipiniana: The Vargas Collection in the Wake of War and the Modern: Manila 1941-1961.” The curator himself, Dr. Patrick Flores, walked me up to one Serna and Custodio after the other, educating me on that key period of transition between the traditionalists and modernists—particularly the fact that the lines between were never that sharply drawn.

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For now this is just a long introduction to build up some credibility for what I’m about to claim, which is a heightened sense of awareness in things artistic, albeit from a strictly amateur perspective. It’s the kind of awareness that allows me to pronounce (at least to myself), “Hmmm, this painting looks nice, but unfortunately it’s a fake, because XX never used an apostrophe when he dated his later signatures, as in ’76 or ’83,” or “How can this be from 1995 when ZZ died in 1986? Besides the strokes are all wrong, they’re way too hurried.”

Next week, we’ll deal with a real whodunit: who did that life-size painting of Rizal and a cohort of Spaniards stored for decades in UP Diliman? I’ll offer my conjecture.

 

Penman No. 296: My Past as a Printmaker

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Penman for Monday, April 2, 2018

 

EVERY NOW and then I get a reminder from somewhere very far that, at one point in my past, I led a very different life and might have gone down another path altogether.

Last month I received a message from a gentleman in England, asking me if I knew the artist of a print he had acquired, an etching of a water buffalo with a bird perched on his back, dated 1974, titled “Katuwaan Lang,” and signed by a “j y dalisay jr.” I received similar inquiries from two ladies in the States back in 2008 and 2015, who both sent me pictures of prints I hadn’t seen in decades.

Yes, I told them all, once upon a time I worked as a printmaker, and it happened this way.

In January 1973, I was arrested by the military for alleged subversion—I was 18, a college dropout, and a fledgling reporter for the Philippines Herald and Taliba—and was thrown, along with a couple hundred other inmates, into a detention camp somewhere in what people now smartly call Bonifacio Global City. Back then it was just the Ipil Rehabilitation Center, a repurposed Army barracks enclosed in barbed wire.

Among my fellow detainees—aside from the likes of Jojo Binay, Orly Mercado, and Zeus Salazar—was the artist Orlando “Orly” Castillo, who organized an Artists’ Group which conducted sketching sessions and painted and sold little souvenir items to our Sunday visitors. Not knowing how long we were going to be detained—I for one was never arraigned or tried in court, although I was interrogated and beaten up—I signed up with the group, having done a bit of drawing since grade school.

As it turned out, I would be released after seven months (“Go pack your bags, we have nothing on you,” said the officer). Instead of returning to school in UP—which I found deathly quiet and unconducive to learning—I sought out Orly, who had been released earlier, and joined him and a group of new friends at the Philippine Association of Printmakers studio and gallery at 1680 Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita, Manila.

It was really little more than a big box at the far end of a lot, but it housed an etching press, and I learned printmaking on that press just by watching the regulars going through the motions of coating zinc plates with asphalt “ground,” drawing their designs on the ground, soaking the plates in a bath of nitric acid, inking the plates, and printing copies of the artwork off them under the rolling press. I looked over the shoulders of people like the late Manolito Mayo, Tiny Nuyda, Joel Soliven, Bing del Rosario, Fil de la Cruz, Ronald Veluz, and Emet Valente. (Yes, most of the regulars there were guys, although Petite Calaguas, Adiel Arevalo, and Ivi Avellana-Cosio would also come by.) Sometimes Bencab dropped in, and I was very happy when he remarked kindly on one of my etchings of a boat in Romblon harbor.

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I did etchings like everybody else, but my preferred technique was drypoint, which meant scratching and digging the design straight onto the zinc plate with nothing more than the needle of a compass. My fingers would get so sore they nearly bled, but drypoint lent the work a certain delicacy of line that you couldn’t get with nitric acid. For inspiration, I turned to the pages of E. S. Lumsden’s 1926 classic The Art of Etching, a copy of which I still keep.

I became a printmaker for a while, not just because I loved the craft and the company, but because I was jobless. Selling prints in bulk to a dealer who sold them framed to US servicemen sustained me through that lean season. The prints sold for maybe just 15 or 20 pesos each, but a few hundred went a long way then.

At some point I won an honorable mention for the drypoint print of a farmer, and served as Vice President of PAP under Lito Mayo—not for any abundance of artistic talent (I was way too conservative to amount to much), but, I suspect, because of my way with words, a facility I have found useful to this day. But inevitably life’s other challenges caught up.

It was at the PAP where I met my wife to be, a pretty girl named June, and I courted her with letters handwritten with a Mars Lumograph and, of course, a drypoint portrait I made of her. A few months after we met, we were married—but not before I managed to find a more stable job, at my mother’s insistence, this time as a writer for the National Economic and Development Authority, just around the corner.

The PAP has long left J. Bocobo and all I have from those days is a small album of about a dozen stray prints, but I still feel a surge of fraternity whenever I meet Bencab, Tiny, Ivi, and the other true masters of the art. I like to think that I’ve ported over my sense of imagery and detail to my writing. We can always hope that here or elsewhere, in whatever form, the art will survive the artist; ars longa, vita brevis. (That’s my grandmother Mamay below, in and etching with drypoint and aquatint.)

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June Dalisay to hold art restoration workshop at Start 101

ThenandNow

Press Release for October 7, 2017


FOR THE first time, one of the country’s most experienced art restorers will hold a basic but intensive 10-session workshop on Painting Restoration for students and art practitioners from October 16 to November 20, 2017.

June Poticar Dalisay, president of the Artemis Art Restoration Services, Inc., has been restoring paintings and other artworks for nearly 20 years, including works by such masters as Juan Luna, Fernando Amorsolo, H. R. Ocampo, Carlos Francisco, Vicente Manansala, Juvenal Sanso, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, and Araceli Dans. A student of Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines, she studied art restoration and conservation with instructors from the Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional.

The workshop will be held at the Start 101 Art Gallery on the Ground Floor of Concordia Albarracin Hall, Centennial Dorm, E. Jacinto corner C.P. Garcia, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City. June collaborated with Start Gallery owner, the artist-entrepreneur Virgie Garcia, to design a program covering the basics of painting restoration. “While we will first deal with the theoretical aspects, it will also be a very hands-on experience, with participants learning everything from the proper construction of wooden stretchers to removing varnish and retouching,” says June. “There is a growing need for more trained art restorers in this country, since it isn’t formally taught in our universities and the demand for restorers will only rise with the boom in Philippine art.”

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The 10 am-12 pm sessions will be held on October 16, 18, 23, 25, and 30, and November 6, 8, 13, 15, and 20. The topics will cover conservation in the Philippine setting; properties of materials and factors of deterioration; construction of a wooden stretcher; preparation of the canvas; proper stretching and preparation of the surface; creating an artwork; retouching; patching, grafting, removal of varnish; and correcting dents and further retouching.

The Painting Restoration workshop follows on the heels of workshops on Painting, Film, and Children’s Art that have been held at Start 101. Virgie plans to host other workshops on Calligraphy, Crafts, Printmaking, Needlework, and Collage in 2018.

For more details and to apply for the workshop, please contact Virgie Garcia at 0917-821-8225 and start101gallery@gmail.com. The fee will cover both instruction and art materials.

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