[PHOTO AT LEFT - Negros Occidental Congressman Carlos “Charlie” Cojuangco says he learned to appreciate art from mom Gretchen and grandmother Dońa Josephine. During summer, they would go to Ang Kamalig in Pasay, and on trips abroad, they’d visit museums. “For me collecting art has become a passion, and it is always a learning process,” Charlie shares. Photos By Joey Mendoza]

MANILA, JANUARY 15, 2010 (STAR) ARTMAGEDDON By Igan D'bayan - A band of revolutionary brothers pose for a snapshot of doom.

Christ wannabes ride a jeepney towards the New Jerusalem. Something carnivalesque is happening but we really don’t know what it is. An ironic heart outlines something equally ironic. And, alas, Minnie Mouse has grown up to be one sultry siren. These are not your average painted day-scares and nightmares courtesy of artists such as Kawayan de Guia, Alfredo Esquillo, Charlie Co, the late great Santi Bose and Olan Ventura. And, well, Charlie Cojuangco is not your average art collector.

These artworks — among other contemporary works by Maria Taniguchi, Norberto Roldan, Dennis Gonzales, Jose Tence Ruiz, Neil Manalo, Nunelucio Alvarado, and Nona Garcia, among others — are currently on view at Charlie’s NOVA (Negros Occidental Visual Arts) Gallery Manila at La Fuerza Compound along Pasong Tamo Extension. All are part of the Carlos Oppen Cojuangco collection, and all create this “visual narrative that explicitly articulates the various responses of Filipino artists to the present condition of the country.”

Artists, it is always said, are visionary, and all their visions are valid equally. Charlie Cojuangco believes that as well. But Charlie doesn’t consider himself a serious art collector.

“For me collecting art has become a passion, and it is always a learning process,” he shares. And unlike most art collectors, he doesn’t buy art for investment; he buys art for appreciation and enjoyment. His first art purchase was in 1995. He bought a Norma Belleza painting, and hasn’t looked back ever since.

Charlie, the son of Danding and Gretchen Cojuangco, admits to being drawn at first to whatever’s colorful, anything idyllic, or those depicting scenes of everyday Filipino-ness: planting rice and market themes in particular. But little by little, through constant poring over art books and making frequent stops at galleries, Charlie began seeing things differently.

“It’s an evolving thing. I think all collectors start with one (artistic predilection), and then they change, they evolve.”

Don’t dare say that what he collects is not “decorative,” if with that term you mean flowers, harvesting rice and such.

“I consider what I collect decorative as well. If I like to look at it, it’s decorative.” No matter if it’s a diptych of a painted saw and an X-rayed saw (by Nona Garcia), or if it’s something that was designed to collect household dust (Lara de los Reyes). For Charlie these artworks decorate his space. “If I want color, I’ll get a piece that stimulates my mood. Even this (somber-looking) piece (by Maria Taniguchi titled ‘Study for an Island’) stimulates my mood.”

Beauty queen Carolyn Garcia — and Charlie's partner in life and art — describes Charlie’s taste in art as “edgy.” She adds, “We love going to galleries and furniture stores. And when Charlie was about to put up Nova, I told him if art is your passion then go for it.” During construction Charlie oversaw everything, according to Carolyn.

Nova is the fruit of his very own vision.

Asking Charlie what’s his most prized painting — among his Borlongans, Justinianis, Charlie Cos and Nona Garcias — is like asking Mary Boone which artist moves her the most, or what Francis Bacon painting would Damien Hirst bring to a desert island.

“There are some (paintings) that are more special than others, some that are more significant. Like this particular piece (by Antipas Delotavo) is very special since it represents peace and order in our country.”

Every so often we have upheavals. Change is an ongoing thing. “That’s they the artwork is parang hindi tapos,” he explains, pointing out the swathes of canvas white that was purposely left unpainted. “And then there are some that are special because there is a special attachment.” Such as the paintings of flowers and koi by siblings-in-law Isabel Diaz and Ramon Diaz, respectively.

We all know Kevin Costner’s movie Field of Dreams, wherein a dreamy baseball fan ruminates on how “if he build it, they will come.” That line is at the heart of why Charlie put up the Nova Manila Gallery.

“I’ve always wanted to build a museum in the province. We have very few museums in Manila, and it almost impossible for people in the provinces to visit those museums, right? One advantage of exposing our countrymen to art is introducing them to different ideas and various influences.”

He decries the fact that our children have become sponges. Just think of the ratio between teachers and students in the classroom, especially in the provinces. All communications go one way only, no room for interaction and dialectics.

“If we keep saying that our children are our future, we have to equip them with critical minds — so that they can ask questions, analyze for themselves, come up with their own opinions, and (ultimately) make their own decisions. Instead of being told what to do. Art is an excellent tool for that. In a roundabout way, that’s what’s important to me. If we have a museum, if we have an art venue, we can bring art to the masses. Rather than the other way around.”

Art in other cultures, he adds, is for everyone. Not just for the moneyed and the influential.

“(By mounting artworks in Nova Gallery Manila) I could get to share my passion with old friends, as well as people I will meet in the future. Hopefully they will appreciate it like I do.” And in the process, help contemporary Filipino artists showcase their oeuvres.

But it wasn’t all color in the life of Charlie. His wife, beauty queen and TV host Rio Diaz, succumbed to cancer in 2004 after courageously battling the Big C ever since she was diagnosed with it in 1998.

“God gave her the strength to keep going, and God gave me the strength to be supportive,” says Charlie when reminded about those bleak, bleak days.

He didn’t do anything special, he admits humbly. All he did was to give support to the woman who owned half of his heart. “Unfortunately it was her time. I am no longer bitter about it. We were able to prepare for (her passing). Even our kids Claudia and Jaime, (despite the fact that) they were very young at that time. But it’s still difficult to say that we’ve completely moved on.”

Life goes on, all the best philosophers and worst life coaches will tell you that. But once in a while, people whose partners left this world early think about those days with the dearly departed and remember — as Charlie stresses — “always the positive, never dwelling on the negative.”

What about? Maybe those days in the Cojuangco household in Negros Occidental, or the sojourns to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in San Francisco, California. Or maybe the first up-close Picasso or a Dali in surreal life. Or maybe the movies, the talks, and the laughs. The laughter brimming with mirth. Always the memories that are brightly lit, mainly because Rio was one incandescent spirit to begin with.

Come to think of it, that is the power of art as well. It gives form, shape and color even to the direst of situations. Paint (to mangle a line from poet Marje Evasco) has the texture of memory.

Daughter Claudia, informs the dad, is interested in video art, while son Jaime is into music. Charlie reminds us that Rio comes from a family that has strong artistic inclinations — whether in painting, photography, or in running galleries.

Life — just like art — has a way of flowing on.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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