Guerra Guerra: Revisiting Charlie Co’s paintings of the world’s trending headlines
Filipino artist Charlie Co does not stray from his 40-year stance as a chronicler of our times, painting commentaries on the society's perennial issues
June 23, 2020
Written by Angel Yulo
Introduction by Gabrielle de la Cruz
Photographed by Neal Oshima
In this day and age of various socio-political issues such as the nation’s resistance against the Anti-Terror bill and the media’s continuous fight for press freedom, the role of art as a purveyor of ideologies and values is heightened. BluPrint revisits Guerra Guerra, a 2017 exhibit by visual artist Charlie Co that touches on some of humanity’s perpetual struggles.
Charlie Co’s November 2017 exhibit at Manila House called Guerra Guerra read like the last book of the Bible. With sinister landscapes and figures, the artist interprets the world’s trending headlines. He recalled this series began when news about Aleppo broke out. A visit to Hiroshima prompted him to create larger-scale works, beginning with Atomic Scream. Work on the series intensified when Marawi was sieged. “I realized that the devastation brought about by war, may it be in Aleppo or right on our doorstep in Marawi, is no different,” Co tells us.
Guerra Guerra, the Ilonggo term for children’s war games, is a continuation of Co’s April 2017 show of the same title. The smaller pieces of the earlier exhibit were accompanied by eight new large paintings that flanked the chic hallway and restaurant of BGC’s latest place-to-be. The artist affirmed the irony of his social commentaries being displayed where bigwigs dine, the dissonance heightened by the venue’s plush seats, and an array of potted palms. While the bold colors and scale of the works demand the attention of those who walk by, their apocalyptic scenes are windows to violent realities the bourgeoisie opt to drape as they mingle. Co spotlighted these portals where they are difficult to miss and to shutter.
The exaggerated faces and outlandish settings are symbolic of the news, the devastation of which the artist says we have become immune to. Co does not stray from his 40-year stance as a chronicler of our times. “What’s reported on TV, internet, and newspapers may not all entirely be true. Fake news is too common now. But as a painter I interpret it in my own way,” he says. However, this show involved a new process. He first worked modeling paste onto the canvas with his hands, sculpting the scenes with his fingers before painting them over with pure tones of red, yellow, and blue. Standing in front of a painting, he reenacted its creation–fingers pounding the canvas like bullets from an M16 rifle in open form. The artist painted with urgency and violence to match his subjects.
“War has been around since man existed. Do people find pleasure in killing each other? There seems to be some kind of euphoria involved,” Co pondered as he explained work called Mutiny. At the foreground is a boat skippered by two long-nosed characters facing opposite directions–an ill-fated ride. Both captains are oblivious to the violence happening on deck, as their passengers in choke-hold are about to club each other. Meanwhile, the background of bare trees and black hounds offers little respite. The vessel held at sword-point is symbolic of how the world is treading the edges of physical, ideological, environmental collapse.
Caliphate is an allegory of religious extremism. A hooded man with a tongue of fireflies over a crowd by a boundary wall. Matchsticks, like flagpoles, are planted among the sea of peering heads. The painting alludes to the masses’ indiscriminate reception of the incendiary, hate-filled lies. Smoke looms in the deep blue sky, signalling that some fires have already begun.
Just as the book of Revelation ends with a vision of final glory, Charlie Co still carries hope when he paints. “My goal is to make the viewer think ‘How true!’ then ask himself ‘Is this the trajectory I want to continue on?'” he said. The artist does not completely leave us to our devices. Guerra Guerra tucks in a starting point. Good or Evil, a deconstruction of Raphael’s iconic St. Michael, is a celestial battle between identical warriors. Co tells us this is a picture of our daily internal struggle as any person is capable of both good and evil. Being consumed by one or the other is a matter of which of them we will allow to win.