Penman No. 257: Wonder Woman in the House

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Penman for Monday, June 26, 2017

 

OVER MOST of the 43 years that we’ve been married, Beng has learned—not without some resistance—to resign herself to being introduced as “the wife of Butch Dalisay” (whatever that means). Lately, I’m happy to report, more of the reverse has been happening. I’ve been attending art events where I’ve tagged along as the quiet husband, content to watch Beng take center stage.

To step back a bit, center stage was where Beng (aka June Poticar) was when I first saw her in college. She was in UP a bit earlier than I was (although you’d never have known it just by looking), and I had a crush on her, but I didn’t think she was going to give me the time of day back then. She was a member of the University Student Council, where all the cool people were, representing Fine Arts; I was a scrawny freshman pecking away at a noisy manifesto in a corner. I admired her most when, sometime in 1971, she led the making and unrolling of the probably biggest wall painting ever made in Philippine art history, a protest piece occupying several floors of the Library building facing the Sunken Garden. I was a reporter for the Collegian, and I wrote up that story, not knowing that the girl behind the mural was going to be my wife just three years later.

We’ll save the love story for some other time, and flash forward to 2017. After variously working for many decades as a fashion designer, a jewelry designer, a graphic artist, and a watercolorist (as well as, of course, a wife and mother), Beng has found her métier and been recognized as an art restorer and conservator—one of the country’s best—and no one could be prouder than her writer-husband.

I was invited to Iloilo last May to speak at an international conference on intangible heritage, which we both enjoyed attending. But I’d have to admit that I was more anxious to attend Beng’s lecture that same week at the University of San Agustin, which had asked her to speak on art restoration before a group of young local artists.

It’s been almost 20 years since Beng joined a group of other Filipino professionals for an intensive, year-long training program in art restoration and conservation put together by the Agencia Española de Cooperacion Internacional, the National Museum of the Philippines, and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. That turned out to be a life-changing experience for many of them—certainly for Beng, who put up her own art-restoration company and has trained other people in this very small but absolutely necessary occupation.

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Since then, I’ve watched her and her team patiently bring scores of priceless paintings and other artworks by the masters back to life, from the partial restoration of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, which had suffered a tear, and many other works by Amorsolo, Manansala, Botong Francisco, HR Ocampo, Fernando Zobel, Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Araceli Dans, Bencab, and their peers (once, even a Miro print).

I’d have to admit that I’m more scared than she is when she applies her brush to a century-old canvas, or cleans up the browned varnish on an Amorsolo with a Q-Tip, and I’m sure my mouth hangs open in wonderment when I see the magic happen, but she’s cool as a cucumber, knowing precisely what she’s doing. I nearly scream when we visit museums like the Louvre and the Prado and she comes to within a centimeter of a Renoir or an El Greco to scrutinize the restoration job.

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That’s the woman I saw transforming a roomful of young Ilonggo artists—almost all of whom had never met or even heard of her before—from curious and polite listeners to an animated gaggle eager to practice on their own artworks. I sat like a mouse in a corner of the room as Beng explained the basics and intricacies of scientific art restoration which, as she pointed out, isn’t really taught in art school in the Philippines. (Sadly, not even in UP; you’d think that with the number of beautiful and valuable paintings moldering away in this country, we’d be awash in art restorers, but there’s been very little interest in putting it on the curriculum, probably because there are very few qualified practitioners to teach it.)

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Beng’s lecture and demo in Iloilo was a preview of what a full course should be, where she discussed some basic principles—reversibility, compatibility, durability (“Less is more; don’t do anything that isn’t necessary; always make sure that whatever material you add for patching and grafting is weaker than the original linen or cotton,” etc.)

“My practice of restoration has led me to certain discoveries and I now use non-toxic ingredients to remove stubborn and deeply ingrained dirt and old discolored and hard-to-remove varnish. I have discovered new sources of local conservation materials that have lowered the cost of restoration. I have also developed my own techniques in closing and flattening cracks, softening and correcting dents, and patching tears and holes,” she wrote for Perro Berde, a publication of the Spanish embassy here.

“I’m no Wonder Woman,” Beng says when I tease her, but I suspect she had it all planned out. When she established her company 18 years ago, she chose the name “Artemis,” which English-major-me knows is another name for Diana. I better be careful.

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Penman No. 227: The Southern Lights Shine Brightly

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Penman for Monday, November 28, 2016

 

 

 

A RECENT gallbladder operation and the stitches in four corners of my belly couldn’t stop me from flying down to Iloilo City last week to catch the tail-end of VIVA Excon 2016, which I’d plugged here some time ago but just had to see for myself. The personal reason was that my wife Beng was one of the scheduled speakers, for a session on “Art Conservation and Restoration,” but I’d also heard that VIVA Excon was one of the most successful events of its kind in the country (“probably the only surviving and longest-running Filipino biennale,” VIVA Excon stalwart and chronicler Cecilia Locsin-Nava would emphasize to me). Here’s what I found.

From November 17 to 20, more than 250 artists, speakers, and guests from the Visayas, Mindanao, and Manila gathered at Casa Real in the old provincial capitol of Iloilo to celebrate, interrogate, and propagate art in all its splendorous variety—the important qualifier being that this was new art produced south of Manila. It’s been around since 1990, moving around the major capitals of the Visayas such as Cebu, Bacolod, Dumaguete, and of course Iloilo. Surprisingly, it was only the second time that Iloilo hosted VIVA Excon, after a 20-year hiatus, so the local organizers made up for lost time by mounting one of its most vibrant editions ever.

When it started—spurred by the need to create a southern antipode for the arts, given the emergence of such bright new talents as the Negrense painter-sculptor Charlie Co—VIVA Excon had to be funded by the artists themselves, but this year Iloilo’s provincial and city government pitched in to guarantee the event’s success, with help from a host of sponsors led by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). On top of the local planning was painter Rock Drilon, assisted by a corps of wizards and elves who made sure that the dozens of events on the program went off like clockwork. VIVA Excon originals Ed Defensor, Charlie Co, Peewee Roldan, and Cecilia Nava were also around to lend their wisdom and support.

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As its name suggests, VIVA Excon (the “VIVA” stands for Visayas Islands Visual Arts) was at once both an exhibition and a conference. As someone who has helped to organize quite a few literary conferences myself, I was much impressed by the scope and depth of the topics taken up at the conference and by the expertise of the speakers engaged for the occasion, some of them coming from as far as the US, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I missed most of the earlier sessions, but I would have loved to listen to Ma. Victoria “Boots” Herrera speak on “Museum Practices: What Artists Need to Know”; Silvana Diaz on “Creative Economics: Art Management and Economic Viability”; Elvert Bañares on “Creative Crossover: From Visual Art to Cinema and Back—The Visayan Artists’ Experience”; Rex Aguado on “Art, the Artist, and the Art Collector”; and Patrick Flores on “Art Criticism—Its Value to the Artist and the Artworld.”

Fortunately, I came in time to catch UP art theorist Lisa Ito address issues in writing about the arts—“for what and for whom,” she would say, “beyond the popular writing geared toward the art market, and the academic writing produced by scholars and theorists.” Lisa felt that more writing should be undertaken to “connect artistic production to social contexts and current realities, and developing publics and communities that validate the vitality of art and culture” as well as to “document design practices and projects and to record transient cultural events for future generations—how communities adapt, such as by using tricycles as mobile galleries and by putting up makeshift museums.”

She was followed by New York-based Carina Evangelista whose lecture on “When Forces Shape Form” led the audience to where art has gone far beyond and outside the museum, in performative gestures—often deeply and manifestly political—that emphasized process over product, transience over permanence, and repurposing over originality. (One example: the banknotes that Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles stamped with a political message and circulated in 1970 as a form of mobile graffiti, which nervous recipients couldn’t pass on quickly enough, thereby abetting its purpose.) It was truly a semester’s worth of material packed into 45 minutes on new forms of art from body mutilation to sound and video installation, reminding me of Marjorie Perloff’s lecture on avant-garde poetry just a couple of weeks earlier in Singapore; sometimes you learn the most wonderful things in the oddest places.

Of course, I was happiest and proudest to see Beng onstage walking the audience through the various stages of restoring Amorsolos and Botong Franciscos, and it was clear from the flurry of questions she fielded after her presentation that conservation and restoration were two of the least understood concerns of the art world, yet also two of the most vital if not inevitable. (Sculptor and installation artist Martin Genodepa graciously emceed the presentations.)

Outside the conference hall, three art exhibits were held: a curated one on “Contemporary Art of the Islands” at the UP Visayas Art Gallery, the more freewheeling Visayas Art Fair at Casa Real, and a special retrospective of the late Ilonggo sculptor Timoteo Jumayao at the Museo Iloilo.

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The culminating activity of VIVA Excon was the presentation of the Garbo sa Bisaya award to eight outstanding Visayan artists for excellence in their respective fields: painter Antonio Alcoseba (Cebu); scholar and painter Dulce Cuna Anacion (Leyte); film artist Elvert Bañares (Iloilo); film animator Oliver Exmundo (Iloilo); painter Allain Hablo (Iloilo); multimedia artist Manny Montelibano (Negros Occidental); painter Javy Villacin (Cebu); and painter and scholar Reuben Cañete (Cebu).

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But I’m sure that all the attendees will agree if I suggest that the best part of VIVA Excon was, ultimately, the company of fellow artists, a fraternity forged over beer and music as much as over linseed oil and plaster. Even if I was little more than an onlooker at the event, I was glad to meet up with old friends and acquaintances like Rock Drilon, whose Mag:Net bar and gallery on Katipunan Avenue used to be one of our favorite hangouts. He moved to Iloilo years ago to take care of his ailing mom, and found himself drawn inextricably into the local art scene, until he realized that he was truly home. “Viva should last beyond the Excon,” Rock told me, “so an artists’ cooperative has been organized to sustain the energy sparked by VIVA Excon.”

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Two years from now, the event will be hosted by Roxas City in Capiz. Iloilo could be hard to top, but these Visayans are full of surprises.

Penman No. 220: Viva Visayan Artists

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Penman for Monday, October 10, 2013

 

JUST LIKE the city itself, which has undergone a refreshing makeover these past few years under the watchful eye of its chief political patron, former Senate President Franklin M. Drilon, Iloilo’s artists have been brimming with a new vitality that art lovers beyond the region have begun to appreciate.

I know that, because a few months ago, my wife Beng—herself an Ilongga artist and conservator who’d gone briefly back to Iloilo on family business—came home with the news that while in Iloilo, she had found and purchased a large painting by one of the city’s brightest young talents. The word “large” pricked my ears because it somehow sounded like “expensive” to me, but then she said she was paying for it herself, so I asked no further.

But I had to find out who the artist was, and Beng—who regularly tends to Amorsolos, Manansalas, Botongs, and Ocampos in her line of work—began gushing like a fangirl about a young painter she’d met while touring the Iloilo art scene with her old friend Rock Drilon. Rock, himself a painter of no mean stature (a recent exhibit at West Gallery displayed a penchant for organic, microbial forms), has been based in his home city for many years now, and has been a guru of sorts to younger artists there. So it was Rock who took Beng around to introduce her to his wards and their work, which was how this haunting painting of a young woman in white drapery found its way to our home in Quezon City. (It was too large to fly home with Beng and had to be professionally packed and shipped; I didn’t get to see it until months later.)
That’s when I first heard of Kat Malazarte, whose first solo exhibit Beng had seen at Casa Real de Iloilo, where Beng’s chosen work titled “Purity” (an apt choice for anyone surnamed Dalisay) had been the centerpiece. Just 20 at the time, she had already won the Vision Petron National Student Art Competition in 2015 for her video entry “Tingnan nang Malapitan, Damhin nang Malaliman” (Examine Closely, Feel Deeply). Indeed there’s a classical composure and pensiveness to Kat’s work, uncommon in artists of her age more prone to wanton kineticism. Her self-avowed themes of “purity, innocence, chastity, modesty, inner silence, contemplation, and state of nothingness” are monastic notions one might associate more closely with a nunnery (Kat’s a Fine Arts cum laude graduate of the University of San Agustin), and her subject’s luminous hands might have been rendered by a Renaissance master.

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So it was with much delight that Beng dragged me a couple of weekends ago to a three-day show at the Gallery at A Space on Legazpi Street in Makati, where a unique concept was being tried out by a pair of young and enterprising creatives, Karen Nomorosa and Prim Paypon. On show were the works of none other than Kat Malazarte and another rising Ilonggo star, the sculptor Harry Mark Gonzales. Dedicated to the theme of “The Quiet Strength of a Woman,” the show of Kat’s paintings and Harry’s sculptures proved a perfect pairing—much like the show’s instigators themselves, who both have outstanding corporate and science backgrounds (both are summas—she in CS, he in Biology) but who’ve taken on the more daunting challenge of promoting Filipino art through their startup venture, Curious Curator.

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“Curious Curator was conceptualized in order to help budding and potential artists from outside Metro Manila, especially from the Visayas and Mindanao, penetrate the mainstream art scene,” said Karen and Prim. “Keeping the welfare of the artist front and center, Curious Curator manages the financial, marketing and sales aspect of the collaboration so that the artist can focus on the creation process. Curated and conceptual art exhibitions are held in non-traditional venues to reach a wider audience. This enables the startup to promote the evolving Filipino artistry while diversifying and simplifying ways that budding art collectors can secure original but affordable art pieces.”

The two-person exhibit at A Space realized that mission. While we had already seen Kat’s work, Harry’s cold-cast marble figures, more than vaguely reminiscent of Henry Moore’s sinuous women, were another revelation. Coming from a background in IT and with a large brood of siblings to help support (he once drove a sikad around the city), this carpenter’s son put his faith in his vision and his hands, and began sculpting pieces that quickly won local collectors over. The self-taught artist won a Metrobank Art and Design Excellence Award in 2007 for a terracotta sculpture he crafted to protest an oil spill in Guimaras. “My main inspiration for these pieces is my mother,” he told me as we surveyed his pieces, whose exaggerated torsos suggested an overflowing fullness of all good things.

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It was too bad the show ran for only three days, from September 30 to October 2, but with rentals at a premium, Karen and Prim have had to be more creative in their marketing, aggressively promoting the featured artists and their work online and selling a good number of them even before the show opened.

As for myself, I got the best part of the deal when Beng generously agreed to lend me Kat’s signature work “Purity” to hang in my new office at the UP Institute of Creative Writing (after the Faculty Center fire last April, we’ve found a new home in Room 3200 of Pavilion 3 at Palma Hall in Diliman).

But there are even more exciting events on the Iloilo art calendar to look forward to, chiefly the Visayas Islands Visual Arts Exhibit and Conference (VIVA Excon) which will be held from November 17 to 21 in Iloilo City. The event will take place in four different venues: the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV) Art Gallery for the Garbo Sa Bisaya Awardees Exhibit; the Museo Iloilo for the Romeo Tabuena Tribute Exhibition; the UPV Auditorium for Turns in Form (Curated Contemporary Art from the Visayas); and the Visayas Art Fair.

VIVA Excon will also feature lectures on contemporary art practices, talks by artists, and workshops; an art conservator named June Poticar Dalisay, aka Beng, has been invited to talk about art conservation and restoration, and I’m going to do my darnedest best, my schedule permitting, to tag along. Left to herself, Beng just might drag home another local discovery—not that I’d mind too much.

 

Penman No. 164: Art Meets Anthropology

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Penman for Monday, August 31, 2015

FACTOR 1: For the past 45 years, the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been giving out grants to meritorious individuals and organizations for a variety of causes that fall within its stated mission of supporting “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.” In the US, the individual MacArthur fellowships are known as the “genius grants.”

Factor 2: Chicago also happens to be the home of the 120-year-old Field Museum of Natural History, a venerable institution housing over 20 million specimens from all around the world—including an impressive collection of 10,000 Philippine artifacts, many gathered from American expeditions to the Philippines in the early 1900s, very few of which ever go on display.

Factor 3: Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles—a Filipino-American social scientist and prizewinning writer who now lives in the Chicago area—put the MacArthur Foundation, the Field Museum, and the Philippines together in her head and hit upon the idea of seeking a grant from the foundation to fund a project that would help showcase the museum’s priceless Philippine collections before a larger global audience.

That initiative soon materialized in the form of the Art & Anthropology Project, conceived by Almi Gilles, sponsored by the two institutions, and supported in the Philippines by the Erehwon Arts Foundation. It involves bringing together five Filipino and five Filipino-American artists to work collaboratively on two huge paintings (mural-size at 7 by 28 feet, but technically not murals or wall paintings as they are free standing, on canvas)—one in the Philippines and one in Chicago—over three months from mid-August to early November.

I had a chance to mingle with these artists last week, twice—the first time, on a weekend run to Baguio, during which they visited National Artist Bencab at his museum, and then at the Quezon City domicile of the Erehwon Arts Foundation (which, aside from paintings, also hosts an orchestra and a dance studio). It was good to see Almi again, whom I’d first met in Michigan about 30 years ago when she was doing her graduate work in East Lansing and I (and her brother Jun) in Ann Arbor. I introduced Almi to my wife Beng, the vice-chair and a trustee of the Erehwon Arts Foundation, and along with Erehwon heads Raffy Benitez and Boysie Villavicencio, Almi and Beng helped crystallize the Philippine phase of the project.

The ten chosen artists went through a rigorous and juried application process on both sides of the Pacific. No one—not even established and well-known artists—got a free pass. This opened the door to young, vibrant talents—most of them under 40—representing a range of artistic styles and persuasions, from the realist to the abstract. While the Fil-Am artists come from around the Midwest, the Filipinos range in their origins from Baguio and Manila to Cebu and Cotabato.This August, the five Fil-Am artists arrived in Manila to work with their homegrown counterparts at the Erehwon Center; this October, the five Pinoys will fly to Chicago to do the same. The finished paintings will be on exhibit in their respective venues, and will feature artifacts the artists have chosen from the Field collections, recontextualized in the present. This way, the project’s as much a celebration of our continuing ties as global Filipinos—arguably one of our richest cultural resources—as it is of our pre-Hispanic wealth.

The artists involved are among the best of their generation. Herewith, excerpts from their profiles:

Leonardo Aguinaldo was born in Baguio City in 1967, and currently lives in La Trinidad, Benguet. Aguinaldo’s style is highly illustrational and graphic, derived from his experiences as a printmaker. He utilizes the rubbercut and acrylic paint to achieve highly dense and detailed designs derived from his traditional Cordillera background.

Jennifer Buckler was born in Dover, Ohio in 1986. She received her BA in Art from The Ohio State University in 2009 and her MA in Art Therapy Counseling from Marylhurst University near Portland, Oregon in 2011. In 2013, Buckler joined a Chicago-based Filipino artists’ collective known as the Escolta St. Snatchers Social Club, where she has explored her Filipino roots more deeply.

Elisa Racelis Boughner was born in the United States and raised in Mexico, and studied art in America and Europe. Her work reflects the influence of each of these cultures, and of a range of painting styles from Impressionist and German Expressionist to Cubist. The result is a unique and highly personal style that brings extraordinary vibrance to often ordinary subjects.

Cesar Conde is a contemporary painter who employs Old World techniques on modern materials to paint realistic portraits. He is a Filipino-American artist based in Chicago who studied with master painters in Italy and France. He counts Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Goya among his influences.

Florentino Impas, Jr. was born in 1970 in Danao City, Cebu, ands graduated from the Surigao del Norte School of Arts & Trade. A consistent competition finalist and winner and a member of the Portrait Society of America, Jun was a former president of Cebu Artists Inc. (CAI) as well as a former president of the Portrait Artists Society of the Philippines.

Joel Javier earned a BFA in Painting and Drawing at Murray State University in 1999, then pursued a career in studio art which led to a career in art education, receiving an MA in Art Education in 2011 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Joel is currently the Education Manager at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago.

Emmanuel Garibay was born in 1962 in Kidapawan, Cotabato. With degrees in sociology, fine arts, and divinity, the many-talented Manny has mounted at least 19 solo exhibitions, and is well known for his expressionist figurative style as for the content of many of his works, which often express a keen social and political consciousness.

Trisha Oralie Martin is an interdisciplinary book and paper artist currently living, working, and teaching in Chicago. Trisha envisions her art as a catalyst that can convey important social issues across diverse communities. Inspired by her cultural heritage, her highly patterned works are pulped and printed with native Filipino designs.

Jason Moss was born in 1976 in Manila. He finished a BFA, Major in Advertising, at the University of Santo Tomas in 1997. An award-winning book illustrator, animator, and filmmaker, Jason is also a painter who has mounted 28 solo exhibitions since 1993. Jason’s work blends grotesquerie—his manifest suspicion that our world is beset by demons of one kind or other, some of them within the self.

Othoniel Neri was born in 1985 in Manila, and began drawing at a very young age. In 2003 he studied Fine Arts by mail through the International Correspondence School, and received several awards in international and local competitions. Being a figurative and portrait artist, Otho paints with a very sharp eye and a flair for detail, employing a palette of explosive colors.

The project has been a rich learning experience for the artists on both sides, so far, in terms of exchanging viewpoints, experiences, and techniques. Beng and I look forward to seeing what they’ll do in Chicago for the project’s US phase—whatever its content, surely a triumph of cultural kinship across the miles and the millennia.

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Penman No. 82: A Man Called Nik

IMG_2939Penman for Monday, January 20, 2013

IT WAS with great sadness that I received the news a little over a week ago that my friend Nik Ricio had passed away. We knew that he had been ill for some time, but as these things go, you hope for the best, and never really think people could leave so soon.

He was, to me, indisputably the best Filipino book designer of his time, and one of the finest Filipino artists to have wielded a brush or a technical pen. More than that, he was a friend to me and to many other artists and writers, the kind of friend whose company you didn’t only enjoy but whose talent you felt enriched by and actually learned from.

I got the message about Nik’s death from another old friend, Tere Custodio, with whom Nik and I had worked on the massive, 10-volume Kasaysayan project back in 1997-98. The three of us would collaborate on other book projects after that, but nothing before or since matched Kasaysayan in its scope and intensity. We had been commissioned by Reader’s Digest Asia and by A-Z Direct Marketing to come up with this anthology in time for the celebration of the Philippine Centennial in June 1998; we had our first meeting in January 1997, and in exactly 18 months, on schedule, the anthology was launched—a compendium of 3,000 pages, a million words, thousands of photographs, and the labor of around 200 writers (not just historians, but economists, poets, scientists, priests, and artists, among others) whom we tapped for various essays. Tere oversaw the logistics and execution of the gargantuan project; I edited the text, advised and assisted by the late Doreen Fernandez; but it was Nik who almost literally shaped these ten books and gave them their final look, working with what even then was already an aging pair of Macs and PageMaker.

I recall that effort because of what I learned from Nik, with whom I sat side-by-side, going over those many thousands of pages on his computer screen. I was a rookie editor, something like an infantry captain suddenly ordered to command the Battle of the Bulge; Nik already had many coffeetable books to his credit, chiefly with Gilda Cordero Fernando’s GCF Books, sumptuous productions which Beng and I coveted but could then scarcely afford. I decided early on—sagely, as it turned out—to let the design lead the text.

Happily Nik and I shared a traditionalist aesthetic—a sense of pleasing balance, squared corners, fine detail, and subtle suggestion (this was before book design got all postmodern funky, splashy, and edgy). I could see that Nik was going for a certain look; he’d tell me, “It would be nice if all the last lines on the page ended here…. Let’s get rid of all widows and orphans (lines that hung out all by their lonesome)…. I need a subhead here, to balance the subhead there…. Could you make sure that all the subheads are at least X number of characters and Y at the most?… You see this white line running down the page? That’s a ‘river’ and it doesn’t look good. Help me remove these rivers by adding a few words here and deleting some there….”

As meticulous and painstaking as he was, I never once heard Nik raise his voice, even as the rest of us were at our wits’ end doing our darnedest to make sure we hit our deadlines. Our tie-up with Reader’s Digest afforded us a substantial budget, and as art director Nik could have had his pick of hotshot photographers to help him illustrate our books (Nik insisted that there be a picture in every spread, over ten volumes). But when he had to, no-nonsense Nik—a talented photographer himself—went out with his camera to shoot, say, a rash of rust on a GI sheet or a patch of moss on a rock to use as pictorial motifs.

There’s an ongoing retrospective until the 27th of Nik’s work as a designer, illustrator, photographer, and painter at the Liongoren Gallery on 111 New York Avenue, Cubao, and aside from his book designs and paintings, there’s a wall of his photographs, taken on Manila’s streets in the 1960s and ‘70s: an armless man playing a guitar with his toes, a dog standing his ground in front of a Mercedes-Benz, an old woman staring out a concrete window. He had the eye of Lino Brocka, but unlike Brocka, he went past the real to the romantic, insistently seeking beauty in a decidedly un-beautiful world. He never gave up; even toward the end, no longer able to hold a brush, he used sponges to create large tree paintings.

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Flashback to another New York, the real one. In October 1999, Nik had one of his finest and happiest spells when an exhibition of his paintings opened at the Philippine Center in New York. I was happy to write the text of the brochure that introduced Nik and his works to viewers, and this is what I said then:

“After more than three decades of working as one of Manila’s leading graphic designers, photographers, and illustrators, Nik Ricio returns to an old love—painting.

“This exhibition—surprisingly enough, only the first one-man show of his long career—shows Nik returning to his artistic and spiritual roots. Those roots lie deep in romantic myth in a sense of beauty and order to the natural world, in faith and hope in the regenerative power of Art. Ricio’s works are a veritable garden of the Muses. The lushly detailed foliage that has become a virtual trademark of Ricio’s graphic design is more than pretty in these paintings; every leaf and flower is an affirmation of life, which all Art aspires to achieve and to sustain.

“Ricio made his mark early by winning first prize for two successive years, 1966 and 1967, in the prestigious Shell National Student Art Competition, before graduating in 1968 from the University of the Philippines with a BFA, majoring in commercial and editorial design.

“In Manila and around Asia, he is best known and much sought after as a book and graphic designer. His book projects include the celebrated Turn of the Century, The Streets of Manila, Being Filipino, Dances of the Emerald Isles, Rizal the Saga, Tide of Time, and, most recently, Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People. He counts among his clients some of the Philippines’ largest corporations, as well as Readers’ Digest Asia, the World Bank, the Ambassador Hotel in Hong Kong, and the Manila Hotel.

“As an art director, he has been described by a critic as ‘a submarine commander, a visionary of the deep who gives out consummate orders with the minimum of tantrums.’

“Both the mastery and the modesty should come through in these paintings. They are as close as we can get to what Nik Ricio—so much of whose work has been to realize the dreams of others—really dreams of, all by himself.”

It was no great secret to those who knew him that for many of his last years, Nik was estranged from his family; there was great pain on both sides, and ironically it took his terminal illness to reunite him with his wife Tes and their children, also accomplished artists.

Beng and I went to Loyola Guadalupe for Nik’s very brief wake, to condole with Tes and the family, and with Nik’s many other friends. He lay in an open casket, like Beng’s brother had many years before, preparatory to cremation. I remarked to someone how I would probably end up the same way in the same place, having bought a funeral policy for Beng and myself there. Many tears were shed and regretful words spoken. Walking back to the car, it felt as if you had closed a well-written book full of engaging events and lavish illustrations, leaving you wishing only that it had gone on for a bit longer and had a happier ending.

Godspeed, Nik, and may you meet with all the beauty you tried to give us an early glimpse of. 

Penman No. 74: Constancio Bernardo, the Forgotten Master

AT MACULANGAN PhotographyPenman for Monday, November 25, 2013

THE STORY goes that when the noted abstractionist Josef Albers met Constancio Bernardo at Yale, where the young Filipino had gone to study on a Fulbright grant, he hailed the Filipino “not as a student, but as a peer.” Albers went on to predict that Bernardo—who completed both a second bachelor’s and an MFA degree at Yale—would become a resounding success upon his return to the Philippines in the early 1950s, given his abounding talent.

Indeed, Bernardo had left for the US with high hopes and with his mentor Fernando Amorsolo’s blessings; Amorsolo had reportedly singled out Bernardo as the student most likely to surpass him, especially since Constancio was then working in the same traditional figurative style of which Amorsolo was the acknowledged master.

Sadly and surprisingly, Albers’ rosy prediction would fail to materialize. Bernardo did come home after his Fulbright, but instead of being welcomed warmly by Amorsolo et al, Bernardo—now an accomplished and committed abstractionist—was shunned. He would continue to serve UP, teaching in the School (and later College) of Fine Arts as a teacher and administrator, and his body of work would continue to, establishing him firmly—in the words of art critic Leonidas Benesa—as “second to none in this country” in the field of abstraction, “particularly of the geometric-planar, optical-painting variety.”

For all that, Bernardo would never achieve the celebrity and commercial success enjoyed by his peers like H. R. Ocampo, Vicente Manansala, Carlos “Botong” Francisco, who—despite whatever vicissitudes they may have encountered in their own careers and lives—went on to be named National Artists. As trailblazing and as influential as Bernardo’s work was, he would be cited (again by Benesa, in 1978) as “the most underrated of the exponents of modern art in the Philippines.”

When he died ten years ago, in 2003, Constancio Bernardo was, effectively, a forgotten master, a luminary of Philippine painting whose star burned fiercely but in a dark and distant corner of the galaxy. (As it happened, I was UP’s Vice President for Public Affairs at the time, and attended Bernardo’s wake in my official capacity. Despite my own abiding interest in the visual arts, it was my first albeit belated encounter with Bernardo and his work, leading eventually to an invitation from the family for me to sit on the board of the Constancio Ma. A. Bernardo Foundation, which I accepted.)

It’s high time, then, that Filipinos rediscover and appreciate this lost master in their midst, a need that will be addressed starting this Wednesday the 27th, when a comprehensive retrospective exhibition of Constancio Bernardo’s work opens at the Ayala Museum in Makati. Including about a hundred representative works, the retrospective also coincides with the centenary of Bernardo’s birth, and will be on view until February 28th next year.

According to the exhibition notes penned by the art critic Carina Evangelista, “the exhibition provides the first opportunity to view the full range of Bernardo’s œuvre from a career span of more than sixty years and highlights his canvases of abstraction, lauded by a number of critics from the 1950s onward as among the most important examples of Philippine modernist painting but increasingly overlooked as the decades passed. While included in a number of group exhibitions and the subject of 22 solo exhibitions including retrospectives at U.P. Baguio in 1969, at the Museum of Philippine Art in 1978, and at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1990, Bernardo remains to be on the margins of the annals of Philippine art history. Dedicated to his lifelong art practice and his teaching career at the University of the Philippines, Bernardo staunchly resisted the limelight, eschewing the social scene of the art world and opting to work tirelessly in his studio.

“Within abstraction, his paintings ranged from geometric abstraction to Op art and abstract expressionism—each series structured with a formal mastery and infused with a depth of feeling singularly his. Obdurate in his self-effacing silence in his lifetime, his body of work preserved by the Museo Bernardo Foundation Inc., and CMa Bernardo Foundation for Fine Arts, proves to be the clearest evidence of enduring artistic expression.”

AT MACULANGAN Photography

To writer Francine Medina, “Constancio Ma. Bernardo has an indispensable place in Philippine art history. A prolific artist, he painted every day till his last breath, producing an impressive range of works from self-portraits that chronicled his quiet yet intense life; uncannily realistic still life paintings and nudes; to his highly praised fields of color in his ‘Perpetual Motion’ series. It was just that art was a necessary almost organic function that he needed to accomplish everyday.

“There was a palpable sense of completeness in the way he approached his works, a proof of his great involvement in each piece. He mixed his own paints, diligently worked in his studio, and made his handiwork complete by creating the frames for his art works.

“His quest for the ultimate painting was such that when he felt a work was not at par with his self-subscribed standards, he would paint over it or, as his closest peers would attest, throw it away, never to be seen or worked on again.”

It’s too bad that I never got to know the man when he was alive. I’ve made friends of many artists, and while they generally and understandably aren’t as voluble or as articulate as my writer-friends, many have led very interesting lives that deserve to be known and written about, quite apart from their creations. My wife Beng was a Fine Arts student at UP when Bernardo taught there, but being a Visual Communication major, she never got to study with him, unlike her contemporary, the former Fine Arts dean and modernist Nestor Vinluan, whose paintings clearly show Bernardo’s influence. She remembers him, however, as a quiet and kindly man, with a rather formal demeanor, someone who spoke only when he had to and who chose his words well.

In this restrospective exhibit, Constancio Bernardo’s works will speak for themselves, and hopefully lift him and his legacy out of the obscurity they don’t deserve.

(Let me acknowledge and thank Constancio’s son, the retired anthropologist Angelo Bernardo, for providing additional source material on the painter.)

Penman No. 37: The Rebirth of Joly Benitez

Jana and Joly

Penman for Monday, March 11, 2013

UNTIL VERY recently, the first and the only time I met Dr. Jose Conrado Benitez—better known to many by his nickname “Joly” (yes, with the single L)—was almost 40 years ago, when he visited and spoke to our class in Development Economics at the University of the Philippines.

I was working as a writer then for the National Economic and Development Authority, and my boss—the very supportive Gerry Sicat—had sent me, a college dropout, as a special student to UP to learn some economics quickly. I had been imprisoned under martial law and still carried my leftist sentiments with me, but there being few other options and being newly married, I decided to take my studies as seriously as I could.

There was something of a rivalry between NEDA on the one hand and the Ministry of Human Settlements and the Development Academy of the Philippines on the other, and Joly Benitez was associated with both latter agencies, so when the young Deputy Minister of the MHS came to our class, I can’t say that I was in a very welcoming mood, his ministry (and its chief, the First Lady Imelda Marcos) being seen then to be the source of some of the strangest ideas to have come out of martial law. Still, I was impressed by Benitez’s energy and enthusiasm, and while I remained a skeptic, I found myself opening up to the heretical notion that—with the right leadership and intentions—martial law was an unprecedented opportunity to get some things done right. (Of course, by and large, that didn’t happen, and I was out of NEDA in 1983 and on the street at EDSA in 1986.)

Flash forward to a few weeks ago, on February 21: that evening, a crowd began to gather at the newly established Erehwon Center for the Arts in Old Balara, Quezon City for the opening of “Apple by the Tree,” an exhibition of paintings by the father-and-daughter tandem of Joly and Jana Benitez. I had been invited to the opening by my old friend, kumpare, and Erehwon founder Raffy Benitez, a cousin of Joly. Perhaps ironically, Raffy and I had become friends in martial-law prison; when he later opened a printing press, Raffy drew on some unused paper stock and became the publisher of my first book, Oldtimer and Other Stories, in 1984. In other words, he’s a guy I can’t say no to, and when he invited me to the Benitez exhibit, despite having other plans for the evening, comradeship and curiosity prevailed, and I went.

I came in for a pleasant surprise. Joly’s daughter Jana was already an established New York-based painter, a magna cum laude Fine Arts graduate of Brown University with wide international exposure. Her work, noted the critic Alice Guillermo, “probed the secrets of both the abstract and the figurative, [creating] an art that is young, vital, integral to life and being.” I saw bold splashes of color in the abstract-expressionist style: you step back and translate form and color into thought and emotion.

Joly Benitez was the revelation. The Stanford-trained technocrat may be more at home with economics, but he stood his ground alongside Jana, working in the same style but mainly in black and white. What was even more remarkable was that, six months earlier, he had been close to death, with a debilitating kidney disease that required dialysis four times a week. “People were already calling me a widow,” said his wife, the banker Joanne de Asis. A timely transplant gave him a new lease on life—but it was the return from New York of Jana and their painting sessions that gave Joly a fresh reason to hang on.

Intrigued by this turnabout, I interviewed Joly—who was still visibly weakened by his ordeal but fit enough to climb four flights of stairs—and asked him about his new avocation. It turns out that painting wasn’t all that new to him.

“I had painted before,” he said, “from the time I was a high school teenager, hanging around and going to the PWU School of Fine Arts, after classes from La Salle high school. Even during my stint in government, I did some ten large canvases which I then displayed in the Technology Resource Center. At my home in Cubao, I hosted the Philippine Association of Printmakers, and we had weekly figure drawing sessions. I have painted in brief but intense spurts over various intervals for the last five decades. At this point of my life, I feel more confident and comfortable about displaying my paintings in public, and to continue to explore various modes of abstract self-expression.”

His new work is concerned with perspective, such as how one might see Earth from space. “Sometime ago, I did a series of over ten ‘Earth-scape’ prints and paintings, reflective of my preoccupation with ‘cosmic space’ abstract images.  The predominance of black and white in some of my paintings is the challenge of depicting movement, perspective, texture and expression with a highly and consciously limited palette,” he says.

Working with Jana was “intense and fruitful—a deep conversation in art. We talked continuously and began to appreciate our artistic differences. We sought to elevate our collaborative work to a different threshold. While painting, when she or I would perform brush strokes, or compositional elements, or color hues reflective of our differences, we would consciously attempt to integrate and reconcile them. We had our differences—but in art as in life, mutual respect and appreciation of each other’s idiosyncrasies and differences are paramount.”

After the Marcos years, Benitez served for over a decade as president of the family-owned Philippine Women’s University (his son Kiko now serves in that capacity), where he introduced various ladderized-curricular innovations, including pioneering programs for on-line distance education and continuing education.

The older Benitez is far more mellowed and subdued than the gung-ho guy I recall from the mid-1970s, but he retains a sharp critical edge. I asked him about his views on Philippine development today. “We are highly dependent on the remittances of our OFWs, we don’t have significant industries or manufacturing, our agriculture is in need of major structural changes, and our service sector relies heavily on call centers for employment,” he observes. “We still have to see a national eco-sustainable development strategy that addresses a basic needs approach, with structural changes reflected in locational and spatial dimensions.”

As the architect of many of the Marcoses’ social infrastructure programs, Benitez sees some evidence of a useful legacy left behind from his tenure at the MHS: “Some of our initiatives remain as relevant as ever. They include the establishment and organization of a mass housing system, involving a financial saving system (PAGIBIG), the Home Guaranty Corporation (HGC), the National Home Mortgage Finance Corporation, (NHMFC), and so on, although one would wish that the various housing agencies would operate like a symphony rather than competing and sometimes working at cross-purposes. We also made efforts to promote small- and medium-scale industries, especially focusing on livelihood projects, entrepreneurship, adaptive technology and countryside community organization and development. We sought to introduce a locational and spatial dimension in national, regional, and provincial comprehensive development plans—through the national and regional framework plans, the preparation of provincial atlases and municipal level town plans, and zoning ordinances. We used to say that ‘True structural development should have a face and an address.’ An abstract strategy or a mere compilation of various infrastructure projects do not make for national development.”

At this point of his extended life, Joly Benitez says he’d like “to focus on a few income-generating projects for myself and my family, but most of all I would like to explore and pioneer some ecologically sustainable projects, especially on village level.”

And, of course, produce more art, by himself or alongside Jana. The historians, political scientists, and Filipinos on the street will have their own assessment of the Marcos years and of the role that Jose Conrado Benitez played in it—and I suspect he will not be hopeful enough to imagine that that assessment, given what has happened since, will be largely benign—but the rebirth and refuge offered by art can only sustain this complex man.