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Uncommon Ordinary Magic

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Here’s a show I’m part of. You can say that Uncommon Ordinary Magic is a rare breed of a cultural event: a combination art-exhibition-and-book-launch by two young Dumaguete artists–one a writer and the other a painter–at the start of their creative careers. The show, set on Aug. 16 at 5:30 pm at the Luce Auditorium Foyer Gallery, is the first solo art exhibition of Foundation University’s Hersley Ven Casero, in conjunction with the launches of my books Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror and Beautiful Accidents: Stories. (It coincides quite well with my birthday–the eighth anniversary of my 28th.)

But I want to talk about Hersley’s work. In three sets of artworks–The Crowd, The 365 Project, and Heartbreak & Magic (the latter is composed of Hersley’s chapter illustrations for my similarly titled book)–he depicts, in richly detailed renderings in ink and paint and oil, a heightened awareness of the inscrutability of people and the reach for marked individuality in crowds, of the celebration of the ordinary person in a time of pervasive social media, of the perfect smallness of things somehow elevated to a higher plane by a kind of magic.

Casero, who is increasingly becoming known internationally for his expressive photography, explores in Uncommon Ordinary Magic his mastery in painting–which is his first love. “Painting,” he says, “has always been a part of me.” And he goes on to link this passion for painting as something that is 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.”

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 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.

That uncommon magic though is something that borders on the supernatural, especially when it comes to his works in painting. For him, this is a medium that digs deep into his fantasies and dark imaginations. The resulting works, alas, often become strange sorts of prophecy. “I remember I did this picture of my father grappling with a goat,” he says, “and he was trying to drag it home. The goat had a rope around its neck, and my father was dragging it–but the effort proved difficult, and my father somehow got scraped at the knee. I painted that picture, God knows why. And the very next day, I come home from school, and I see my father in exactly the same pose, in exactly the same get-up, dragging a goat with a rope, his knee scraped bloody.” Was this magic? Whatever it is, it is uncanny. Perhaps there can never be a good answer to this question–only that Casero knows there is something about painting that taps into an otherworldly ether, which he sometimes welcomes, and sometimes not. This is part of the reasons why he abandoned painting for a while, to concentrate on photography. (Perhaps the closest he comes to dealing with this otherwordliness comes about in his illustrations for my book, in the series titled Heartbreak & Magic, which depicts scenes from the fantasy and horror stories from the collection.)

In 2009, Casero decided to go back to painting–focusing on the one genre that seemed tinged with strange alchemy: portraiture. The 365 Project is the result of a year-long endeavor, first to exorcise his peculiar kind of “magic,” and second to indulge in a sudden fascination for social media profile pictures. Facebook seemed replete with images of people–perfectly ordinary people in their perfectly ordinary lives–in a celebration of individuality, of making a mark in a sea of other faces. The project, which was also an exercise at exhausting creativity to the demands of the routine and the daily grind (it demanded one artwork for every day of a given year), was also a chance to explore varieties in styles and capturing character. The Facebook profile picture, rendered in portraiture complete with status update, becomes a reflection of our fascination with the dizzying democracy of our inter-connectedness in an online world, limning questions about individual character, role-play, self-promotion, self-actualization, privacy, and confession. Each subject offers each image as their avatar to the rest of the peeping world–“This is me,” it says, “this is who I am”–but it is identity-making that is as tenuous and flickering as the digital changes that the Internet is famous for. Rendering it in portraiture freezes that one image of the subject into the permanence of art. It is the very same magic that catches a bolt of lightning in a bottle.

This fascination for people’s faces becomes more evident, and matures thematically, in Casero’s The Crowd series. The works in this series–which includes suites of smaller portraits in ink, paintings sweeping across large canvasses, or murals (e.g., the bespectacled giants peeping at the readers in the Foundation University Library)–capture people in a monochromatic consideration. There is drama in their stance. But what makes them remarkable and strange to behold is how Casero depicts them with the lower parts of their faces missing, unrendered. They can almost be accused for peeping, for hiding away, but that is certainly not the case. It is certainly about anonymity–how each one of us remains a cipher to the core, parts of us unknowable, unreachable. The “crowd” is anonymity in a sea of anonymity. The “crowd” is a gathering, its identity marked by the collective rather than the individual. The “crowd” is a surge filled with mystery.

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