At the time of BluPrint’s visit to his Bacolod home in late January, Charlie Co was in Manila, confined to a hospital bed for dialysis. This is the calm after a rather tempestuous storm in Co’s life. A few months prior, he was scheduled to undergo a kidney transplant to address his kidney problems, but a bout of gastroenteritis postponed the operation and opened a Pandora’s box of new ailments: he developed pneumonia, and while doctors were treating this, they discovered two blocked arteries in his heart.
The artist is no stranger to sickness. Diabetes has been Co’s tormentor since he was 25, which has led to the weakening of his kidneys and prompted him to pursue a transplant so that constant dialysis could be avoided. As of this writing, he has since undergone an angioplasty to remove the blocked arteries, and the delayed kidney transplant was a success.
Though his health has deteriorated over the years, his desire to paint hasn’t waned. If anything, these ravages to his body have extruded into his work. Known as a documenter of social problems, Co has long depicted the sicknesses that plague society as frivolous or nightmarish landscapes populated with dummies in colorful garb, hellish steeds and winged harbingers of death, Co’s allegories for the ills of humanity.
Up in his studio at home, deeply personal paintings depict him as the main subject, sometimes facing Death in various forms as seen in St. Michael’s Visitors (1997) and Man’s Time (2013), the latter of which is part of a tryptich that paints a pathetic picture of his current psyche as well as his remarkable tenacity. The paintings, done after an emergency dialysis last September, take up a place of prominence in the dining area beside his studio, up on the second floor. Man’s Time shows Co with a clock for a head, paintbrush in hand, floating amid hospital curtains that hover like ghosts. The next painting, Me and My Machine, is more straightforward, depicting him sitting on a hospital bed with an arm raised, holding court over a number of dialysis machines as if conversing with each of them. The series culminates in Facing My Realities—Co is in front of a canvas, painting a crow-masked figure which has come to symbolize death in his previous work, while a clock ticks away in the background. Taken together, the series of paintings look like hallucinations induced by Co’s frequent confinement in hospital beds in 2013 and 2014.
The fact that these paintings even exist, considering Co’s deteriorating health, attest to his dedication and passion for art. According to his wife, Ann Legaspi, Co still paints daily, even while hooked to a dialysis machine thrice a week. His studio shows no signs of an artist slowing down. During our visit, a blank canvas on an easel was waiting for the artist to come back home, and sit on the paint-splattered chair before it and start brushing and dabbing away.
The 450 square meters of floor space is decked from top to bottom with Co’s paintings, together with artwork from Ilonggo artists like Nunelucio Alvarado, Rodel Cruz and Raymond Legaspi. Raised platforms or pedestals were even built in some areas of the house, to accommodate sculptural pieces arranged in neat vignettes by Co himself.
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Hanging on the walls of the staircase leading up to the studio and on the studio itself are some of Co’s large-scale paintings, most notably the Tiananmen Men: New People’s Army diptych that takes up one wall measured to accommodate the 25-foot long painting. It’s easy to picture Co sitting in front of his easel, painting broad strokes on the canvas with Tiananmen Men in the background as well as other large-scale works in the studio keeping him company.
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This is what he wants, he says, for his art to keep him company. Though absent during our visit, his presence was palpable as clown busts and life-size dummies in various stages of completion stared back at us silently. Dialysis machines are keeping his tired body alive, but as someone who feels normal only when painting, one could say that it is the creation of art that is sustaining the artist’s soul. Charlie Co is living proof of art’s uplifting power.