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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, March 31, 2017

entry arrow10:34 AM | Hersley’s Bakery of the Magical

People find a primal emotional pull in the works of Hersley-Ven Casero. I’ve noticed this every time I post a picture of one of his works—a photograph or a painting or a sketch—on social media. I’d wait for a minute or two, lean back casually, and then I watch the eventual flood of likes, of comments signaling adulation, of queries about where to find more of his works, come.

Earlier in March, I had posted a photograph of his—“Early Morning in Escaño,” a haunting photo of a bluish dawn capturing a silver stillness of sea, a floating barge made to look like a hut, and a man wading in the shallows—and people responded with fervor. “Beautiful,” said the writer Marra PL Lanot. “Solemn,” said another writer Hope Sabanpan Yu. I agree on both counts. The first time I saw that very photo about two years ago in a photography exhibit, it moved me tremendously.

Such is the power of a Hersley-Ven Casero image: the magic is in the composition, the awe is in the cognizance that he had the eye to capture beauty so fleeting, wresting it from the mundane.

The responses to his works from people are telling, and they are scarcely singular. Hersley has arguably become, in so short a time, Dumaguete’s most successful and fast-rising visual artist to date—someone whose body of work has come to help define contemporary Dumaguete visual arts, joining the ranks of Jose Laspiñas, Cristina Taniguchi, Paul Pfeiffer, Jutze Pamate, Babbu Wenceslao, and Maria Taniguchi. With his peers—which include some of the most prolific local artists like Razel Salvarita, Jana Jumalon-Alano, Amihan Jumalon-Fernandez, Mark Valenzuela, and Rianne Salvarita—he has done much in carving out an idea of Dumaguete as an artist’s city, creating considerable buzz.

These days, when not busy conjuring new works (or continuing a series) in his studio at Foundation University, which he calls The Bakery, Hersley jets off to another invitational exhibit somewhere in the Philippines or, increasingly these days, somewhere abroad. Or he entertains the occasional curious media or celebrity who come to The Bakery ready to be wowed, ready to commission, or ready to purchase an artwork on the go. Indeed, these are heady days for a simple guy from a simple background.

He doesn’t complain, of course. In fact, he takes all these things in a stride uniquely his, partly aware of his genius and partly cognizant that a certain groundedness is needed now more than ever. He keeps a good balance of things. He is in fact more amused than overwhelmed by the success he is getting.

Only five years ago, in 2012, I had invited him to share an event with me—I was launching my book of short stories titled Heartbreak and Magic, for which he had painted the cover art and had rendered beautiful illustrations for the stories, and I wanted very much to curate and exhibit at the same time the works he had done for the book, and then some. That show—Uncommon Ordinary Magic—was his first solo exhibition, and quickly garnered for Hersley a following in Dumaguete, and then just as quickly, a following beyond even that.

That 2012 show marked the first time in years he had dabbled in painting, after turning decisively to photography and kept at it for a number of years. “[But] painting,” he had told me then, “has always been a part of me.” And he went on to link this passion for painting as something that was closely intertwined with life and living: “I exist because my art exist. Art is everywhere and in everything. We just have to see it, and recognize it for what it is.”

That show and the friendship that unfurled later on between us gave me an intimate chance to find out his “secret,” why his images seemed to be finely wrought in the magical capturing of moments. I had written then for the 2013 exhibit: “But what he does not readily profess is how his art has come about—even early on when he was still a child exploring a certain yearning for color and texture and lines—with an eye for the magical. Or a feel for it, which feeds the creation. Call it ‘instinct,’ or call it ‘the muse,’ but the magical works a little differently with Mr. Casero. He believes it to be otherworldly, and true enough, something of the uncanny is always at work when he decides to put subject to canvass, or to the shuttering clicks of the camera he holds. You see it in his photography, when you care to take a look a little deeply: composition upon composition of people and places and things happening that seem almost contrived in the strange ways they converge. In many pictures, you behold his instant subjects connecting with an alchemy of background, foreground, angle, light, shutter speed. The pictures always turn out tinged with the divine, or the improbable. ‘When I go out to do a photo walk,’ Hersley once told me, ‘there is no deliberate search for subject in my part. I just listen. I listen to the air, and the air whispers back to me—pick up your camera and shoot, it says. And so I shoot, sometimes even without looking through the lens—and always something remarkable gets captured.’ Sometimes he calls this magic, clearly an uncommon gift. He knows it’s there, and so he uses it to capture the ordinary world that surrounds, and raise aspects it from the banal.”

I return to this piece because I believe that the strongest manifestation of this “supernatural” feel for composition has found its truest expression in one of his latest exhibits, Sanctuary, which opened in Art Verité Gallery in Serendra sometime in late 2016. We didn’t get to see that exhibit in Manila, but I’ve seen of the works at The Bakery, and they struck me immediately as perhaps the most personal Hersley has allowed himself to be in his art.

The poet Carlomar Arcangel Daona, writing for the show’s catalogue, surmised that “the idea behind these works is about constructing our personalities by detaching ourselves from other’s reality. Even though those around us mold us. Even though we learn from what see and we react from what we feel; and we become the person that we are from what we consider acceptable and distasteful, to know right from wrong we have to fall and rise. Our walls have to break and we should pick up the smithereens and start again.” He continues: “This exhibition is an introduction of each artwork as a part of another series they represent. This is a set of openers that embodies different facets of life that we know of ... and the one beyond our comprehension. As a group we are a sanctuary, but there is always a magical story in individuality.”

That “magical story in individuality,” the hidden narrative from deep within us that is always on the verge of breaking out, comes close to defining the very heart of Hersley’s aesthetics. But what has not been concretized in my and Carlomar’s estimation of his works is that Hersley approaches “personal magic” in his art in the alchemic feel of the folk traditions of the native Camiguin of his ancestors—and I recognize that the images in Sanctuary are very much enervated by a sense of blood, history, and folk magic. They spill all over his canvasses, all over the ten paintings he had done for the show, all over their sepia-tinged narratives, evoking nostalgia, that follow seemingly ordinary figures—men, women, and children in the guises of daily living—who are suddenly made to reveal an inner self, dramatized as natural objects given a spectral manifestation.

In “Wonderer,” the head of a swimming boy becomes a large rock populated by fish, lichens, and starfish. In “Wanderer,” we get his female twin—a young girl on a walk grows for a head a rock with a crab embedded in it. In “Balance,” a young man on a bicycle grows a hill for a head, overladen with naked trees, embracing a cave that also embraces a pigeon. In my favorite piece, “Build, Destroy, Build,” a bunch of people riding an invisible habal-habal, sports broken pieces of rock for heads, each one graced by fledgling growth of green.

Not everything in the series are outlandish in their surrealism, although they are as equally fantastic. “Day” is a portrait of a woman whose face becomes intertwined with seahorse, and “Night” continues that theme, this time in profile, with goldfish becoming a girl’s hair accessories. “Home” is the haunting image of a girl floating about in a bed, the linens of which become a whale.

That treatment of the natural as supernatural and their intimate intertwining in people’s lives as the spectral illustration of secret selves are all straight from Hersley’s old magical motifs, something he secretly works in as the first layers of his early paintings, and whose invisible essences inform by and large his instinct for composition. The rock, for example, remains a powerful symbol from his folk beliefs, and in that perhaps “Father is a Giant” serves as the most autobiographical piece in Sanctuary. It depicts a haze of a boy holding up a photorealistic rock—an abyan, he calls it—from which spring forth figures of children diving into the sea, into a lake, and instantly recalling for me Hersley’s old tales of the magical of his Camiguin folks. I have promised however never to divulge much of the details of these stories.

But the paintings are enough: they’re hints made into art. For Hersley and in much of his artmaking, there is a world deep within and around us that is our secret sanctuary—but sometimes it does beg to see an expression of itself. This is Hersley exactly doing that.

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