Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wood nymph

I don't want to be the first to break my own rule about marrying text and images, but since I can't find my file photos of my works cited in my essay, let me inflict myself on my blog visitors. Photo taken at the garden of Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, last spring.

The Marriage of Text and Images

Ever since I started blogging, I made sure I'd have visuals to go with my text. Here's my argument for that kind of pairing. This was the paper I turned in for an art seminar last semester on contemporary art issues.

The idea of melding words and visuals isn’t novel. Ancient China and its mandarins produced elegant calligraphy, brushstrokes representing ideas and feelings apart from representations of gorges and mountains shrouded by mist on paper or silk. Poetry was part of the civil service examination. During the reign of Emperor Huizong of the Song dynasty, the flowers and bird depicted in paintings were accompanied by a gold, slender calligraphic style.
In the Western world, especially in the field of contemporary literature, concrete poetry blossomed in the sixties. Also known as pattern or shape poetry, it is described by Wikipedia as a “typographical arrangement of words…as important in conveying the intended effect.”
Filipino poet Ricardo M. de Ungria, in his foreword to his book of poetry Pidgin Levitations, wrote: “…I would want the designer to involve the history of some poems visually on the very page of their final, or latest, version. Wouldn’t that be exciting to see? Yes, I would very much like this collection to be visual in character, to include even my own chromatext pieces—if only I could find the time and hustle them out from under all those dusty boxes under my bed.”
The book is full of examples of playful typography, doodles, a poem like “Fugues Unwatched” in the center of several frames or boxes, a yellow envelope filled with yellow slips of paper with his short poems printed on them and in the inside back cover, two pockets holding postcards with images and poetry on them. It can be said to be an interactive book.
Pidgin Levitations brings to mind the body of works of author-visual artist Nick Bantock, famed for his Griffin and Sabine series of epistolary novels that make the reader feel he/she is a kind of voyeur as envelopes of illustrated letters and postcards are read.
In his handbook Urgent 2nd Class: Creating Curious Collage, Dubious Documents, and Other Art from Ephemera, he stated how beauty can be created out of mundane, taken-for-granted things. He wrote: “…(G)ood art can be found in many a dark corner. It just has to be discovered, played with, nurtured, and appreciated. Only when we develop a strong sense of aesthetic within the everyday will we avoid having crude and clumsy uglification served to us in the name of art and personal taste.”
He considers his art-making a kind of “outsider art.” He utilizes an assortment of ready-mades from postage stamps, stamp marks, rubber stamps, matches to aged pieces of sheet music, jigsaw puzzles, decks of cards, old maps and engravings. Think of anything, he has or hoards it.
This is what I find appealing about Bantock and the other poets/artists mentioned—not being bogged down in one field of specialization but combining print and visuals. The Cubist Georges Braque, when he was taken ill, did artists’ books or livres de peitre as they were called. They were in limited edition and thus commanded high prices.
Critic Roger Shattuck wrote that Braque and others like him who catered to wealthy collectors followed an “untraditional aesthetic (that) reaches a bare handful of readers and appeals only to sophisticated tastes.” What Braque did was to “escape for a short space into the magical world of words. Representation and figuration present no problem for words. Meaning arises through agreed-upon convention, not through likeness.”
So the Cubist may be drawing flowers in a vase, but the words he writes on the same sheet of paper have no connection with the image.
This is unlike what a Filipino artist from the Hispanic period did. Jose Honorato Lozano’s name is synonymous with letras y figuras. Art critic Santiago Pilar described these unusual works as “age-tinted paintings on Manila paper of 19th-century Philippine life ingeniously arranged, delineated and highlighted with color to form the letters, spelling out a person’s name.”
Lozano may have been influenced then by the illuminated Bibles from the Middle Ages when calligraphers decorated the initial letter of every biblical chapter or a prayer book with an artwork. If the owner of the name Lozano was illustrating was an engineer, he portrayed the tools of the man’s profession in the letters unlike Braque who did not seek to find a connection between text and image.
Recently, the International Herald Tribune reported about American poet John Ashberry, aged 81, who opened his first solo art show at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York City. The article ran: “To Ashberry the intermingling of artist and writer always made sense, because he was both, though his primary ambition while growing up in upstate New York was to be a painter. And not just any kind of painter, but a Surrealist…Ashberry’s artistic ambitions stayed high until 1945 when he got to Harvard, where, for practical reasons, they died down. ‘There was no place to paint, so I stopped,’ he says. But by then he was already writing a lot of poetry and starting to do collage. In addition to being the perfect dorm-room art, collage is the ideal writer’s art, not just because it can incorporate words, but because it can be done on a desk.”
Further on in his career, he learned to speed up a “compositional method…It involved picking up found phrases and images, putting them next to different phrases and images, inviting both brilliant accident and bruising confusion. He was…making language-collages based on principles learned from paper collages…”
His works are not what he would call high art. “…(H)e obviously values in collage its implied anyone-can-do-it modesty, its lack of high artiness, its resistance to monumentality. They’re light and slight. They feel more like keepsakes than like art objects, souvenirs of a life and career…”
Ekphrastic poetry has long been in existence. This refers to poems inspired by artworks. Among the famous examples are John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
But in the series of works I made for this art seminar, I did no ekphrastic writing. Rather I chose poems from my two out-of-print poetry collections, The First Eye and dangling doll: poems of laughter & desperation, an unpublished poem entitled “By the Half-moon Driveway of the ICM House of Prayer” and another, “Rot in the Castle,” from an anthology still found in bookstore shelves.
To add a touch of music, which I love, I chose “Last Rose of Summer” and a portion of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” for two other works. The music sheets came from the compilation Piano Pieces for Children which I studied as a young girl.
I emphasized the use or revival of long out-of-print poems because I was seeking a new audience. My two poetry books came out in 1990 and 1997 in small editions of 200 copies each.
My concept was to combine visuals I had made or composed with words and musical notes. How to combine them set me thinking: should they be scanned and printed out? Then I hit upon the use of the photocopying machine. Local artists like Cesare Syjuco and lately poet-retired journalism professor Raul Rafael Ingles and expatriate former enfant terrible David Cortez Medalla have done xerography. The last two contributed Xeroxed art in the exhibition “Chromatext Reloaded” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery that ran from January to February 2007 and gathered more than 50 writers-artists, including myself. Krip Yuson, who was one of the curators, describes the show as “a dazzling celebration of the word, in dynamic fusion with visible, palpable, electrifying and endearing art.”
What I noticed about the viewers’ behavior on opening night was the length of time they lingered looking at a work. It may be because apart from the drawing, photograph, painting or video, there was always something to read. Gemino Abad’s poems, for example, were illustrated by Danilo Dalena.
These readings about certain writers-artists and the successful “Chromatext” exhibition helped crystallize my ideas. I gathered old works—watercolors of pine trees, world music instruments and a forest, a pastel of a chrysanthemum—and gathered things that I collect like paper cut-outs made by Luz Ocampo of Bulacan (these are actually elaborate, delicate pastillas wrappings made of papel de japon, a form of ephemera, as Bantock would say, because they are usually discarded after the candies are opened) and color paper in my favorite shades of pink, purple and their variations. Throw in a sheet of yellow ruled paper—talk of ordinariness!
In my initial presentation of three xerographs, the feedback I received was the text for all three pieces was too centered and that I should try an off-center layout. This I did with my second presentation. During the second presentation, one feedback was one of the five xerographs that used color paper as material looked as though it was scanned or went through Photoshop so the suggestion was to make it more “rough.” My solution was to produce highly textured acrylic paintings on paper canvas so the strokes and thick pigment could be captured on the enlarged A-3 photocopies, all three of them.
An adjustment was made as to the size of the font of the text. They were enlarged to almost double their size because the A-3 requirement was of a small poster dimension. It was a matter of guiding the photocopying machine operator at Copylandia on Session Road, giving instructions like lightening the tone of some dark paintings. While waiting for my works to be photocopied, I observed the other customers. Everyone, except me, went there for a practical purpose—to have documents photocopied. I was the only one there on an art-related mission which goes to show that the possibilities of using this machine in the service of art and craft have not been fully exhausted.
Besides, I have no training yet in printmaking (rubbercut, etching, intaglio, serigraph, woodcut, etc.). To me xerography is a form of printmaking, a more modern and faster one, and the photocopies I had produced I’ve decided to call artist’s proofs or monoprints. I have no intention of reproducing them in the future. But I have every intention to seize an opportunity to exhibit them to reach those new readers I mentioned earlier.
The whole exercise taught me to continue my “bad” habit of being a pack rat, of not throwing anything away, even if they’re plates from my early fine arts years with mediocre grades of 2.5 or 3.0. They can be recycled, renewed, refreshed by adding other elements and tinkering with them with the aid of a taken-for-granted machine like the photocopier.
So as I learn to pick up more aptitude in painting, which is my preferred way of visually expressing myself, I can also explore what machines can do apart from making life more efficient. Explore them in the name of everyday beauty that can be held by one’s hands.

Be More Aware

At my last official meeting for the year yesterday, I lent Padma Perez, incoming president of the Baguio Writers Group, my copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, a memoir of the author’s recovery from heartbreak by eating her way through Italy, learning meditation in India and adapting to Oriental ways in Bali. Being from the “don’t judge a book by its cover” school of thought, I failed to note the significance of this book’s cover. An observant Padma pointed out how Eat is spelled out using pasta, Pray with prayer beads and Love with orchids. She taught me my last lesson for the year: be ever present in the moment. Thanks, P! Photo by KIMI FERNANDEZ

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sleep in Heavenly Peace

Someone I know nursing a heavy hangover the day after an office Christmas party. Photo by EV Espiritu

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Anytime We're Together It Feels Like Christmas

Because it's a rare occasion when the Fernandez family members get together, even if this picture was taken in May, it has the look of a Christmas reunion.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Demanding Mr. Valenzu

Bobi Valenzuela, curator par excellence (or prestigious curator as we used to kid him) had been lingering in the pre-departure area since his second massive stroke in 2005. For three years until his death on Dec. 12, he was bedridden, his food had to be processed to a fine pulp, he could neither speak—for someone who was gregarious, voluble and pointedly critical—nor walk until his body atrophied.
It was a condition that we knew he abhorred. At the peak of his health, when we would encounter aging or crippled persons, he would wish aloud he would never find himself in the same state. He even asked me to be part of an assisted suicide pact should he ever lose control of his faculties.
Yes, he was a proud person, of the annoying kind who would admit no wrong and consider himself always right. Before his second stroke, this trait estranged once dear friends from him., including myself. He could show displeasure with his infamous eyebrow rising up to the 13th floor. He was already confined to a hospital bed in his family’s home in BF Paranaque when we reconciled one emotional, tear-filled afternoon.
Angie, his sister and main care-giver, told us how he refused to cooperate with his physical therapist. Many times she would send distressing text messages describing his deteriorating health.
One of our friends, Gigi Custodio, called Bobi “The Star of Our Lives,” and he was for close to two decades, the ties forged at the old Hiraya Gallery in the waning Marcos years. Bobi organized courageous exhibitions showcasing the works of the social realists that pierced the veneer of normalcy.
He enjoyed being given importance to—friends called it pagpupugay when they went up the mezzanine of the gallery and paid their respects to him. Birthdays were particularly special as he kept mental tab of those who remembered to call. Even after his first stroke, Noel Cuizon and I were on a neck-and-neck race as to how many times a week we called Bobi to report on the goings-on in our lives. He was great at keeping score and keeping grudges. The last, I suspect, was what triggered the debilitating third stroke.
If he was a good curator, he was even a better friend. Bobi once wondered why so many young and veteran artists came to him with their personal problems. Manny Chaves told him, “Kasi naman, Bobi, tingin nila sa iyo isa kang malaking tenga.”
However, if you were expecting a sympathetic listener, Bobi could be brutal in his frankness and tell the person off, especially if that person did not heed his advice the first time around. If you overstayed your welcome in his premises, he could pointedly remind you, “Di ba may appointment ka pang pupuntahan?”
And of course his appetite for the fine things in life defined him, too. The first stroke made him give up his chain-smoking and his 36 cups of coffee. But diet-wise, he backslided, openly enjoying fatty foods like lechon kawali and kare-kare in the company of people he called “kindred spirits.”
Tonight is a gathering of kindred spirits. I am sorry I cannot join you in this last sendoff for Bobi. I will be in Baguio feeding VCDs of “Camelot” and “The Sound of Music” in our videocorder. I do not exaggerate when I say Bobi can hum and sing in his wonderful tenor all the songs in those two musicals from the overture to the finale. Auf weidersen, Herr Bobi. Long may your music play!