How Cos Zicarelli reimagined Amorsolo’s iconic Ginebra logo

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Cos Zicarelli's exhibit “Dear Father, Show Me the Stars. Dear Mother, Show Me How Far.” contains neon light carvings of broken star shapes initially drawn by Zicarelli’s mother herself. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Costantino Zicarelli has often described himself as a “failed” musician and artist but it may largely be due to the “perfectionism that may be attributed to his Virgo nature,” as described by the exhibition notes accompanying his latest show at the West Gallery in Quezon City, “Dear Father, Show Me the Stars. Dear Mother, Show Me How Far.” His self-critical character allows him to chase the quintessence of his ideas yet it is apparent that he is inspired by the chaos of life as well as the grit and rawness of musical subcultures.

Most of Zicarelli’s previous works were fueled by the spirit and history of black metal music, rock musicians with Satanist leanings, and the suicide of Kurt Cobain. He talks about the Nirvana front man fondly, and can go on and on about the morbid stories of metal bands who have sold their souls to death and the devil. But this time he wants to do something different. “I just turned 32 this year,” he says. “I have to be more mature with my art.”

Self-deprecation aside, Zicarelli has successfully mounted another exhibit in Art Informal (AI), entitled “Prelude to a Billion Years,” currently running simultaneously with the one at West Gallery. Showing his maturity through his obsession with medium and materials, he takes the conceptualism behind his work to the next level by conjuring up more of his personal life, while still retaining the darkness that he is known for.

The common thread binding the two exhibits is a wallpaper motif he created based on the marca demonio label of the Ginebra San Miguel bottle, subdued with shaped canvases in “Prelude,” and with delicate silkscreened gold leaf in “Dear Father,” which also contains neon light carvings of broken star shapes initially drawn by Zicarelli’s mother herself. Even when he translates such an intimate act into bright glowing tubes, there is still black paint hiding behind them, as the silver lining that serves as the angst of his works — this time, more mature — to the evolving cloud of Zicarelli’s art.

CNN Philippines Life sat down with Zicarelli to talk about the evolution of his art in terms of concept and medium, his undying affinity for morbidity, and how he somehow pre-empted the death of Amy Winehouse. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

D1.jpg "I did shitty paintings, pangit talaga. I did solo shows constantly, one to two shows a year. Pero sobrang pangit ng mga piyesa ko [noon]," Zicarelli says. "But it’s okay, it’s part of growing as an artist."  

How old were you when you started drawing?

The first drawing I really remember was a drawing of atomic bombs. I think it was in kindergarten. I was actually copying from my seatmate, he was drawing bombs. It was one of the first early drawings I remember.

I saw some drawings of my dad when he was also a kid, puro Mickey Mouse. Ang ganda, I wish I saved [them]. Ang ganda ng history ng drawings niya because it was one of the only few comic books that were available during World War II. He was a World War II baby, he was in the army, back and forth sila from Africa to Italy.

Were your early exhibits all paintings?

I started with canvas and painting and everything. Parang automatic, if you wanna be an artist, paint on a canvas. I did shitty paintings, pangit talaga. I did solo shows constantly, one to two shows a year. Pero sobrang pangit ng mga piyesa ko [noon]. But it’s okay, it’s part of growing as an artist.

So eventually you moved to installation.

Yeah. Hindi ko kaya to do a normal painting show or drawing show. I always like to have objects.

After a while, ayoko na mag-painting. I really got fed up with the medium. Eventually, pare-parehas na lang itsura ng paintings ngayon eh. Every painting started to look the same — some collector told me, “Oh, your art looks like this artist’s [work].” Medyo na-hurt ako so I tried my best to do something original.

Now you’ve been doing mostly graphite drawings and installation, like your latest exhibit at Art Informal (AI).

I’ve been doing drawings since 2011. My first one was in Silverlens. After a few years of doing that, I’ve decided to do something different.

There’s this one gallery where I used to show constantly, they told me, “Can you do something different?” Like, tama na yung darkness stuff. In a way, I was hurt because I really like doing this topic. At the time, [I wasn’t able to process what they said] but eventually halos two years wala akong show. So I was like, maybe I should really do something different. Less gothic stuff. Even [my girlfriend] Nice would tell me, “Tama na ‘yang gothic mo!”

I can see that your gothic works are also influenced by music. What’s the role of punk and metal in your art?

I was heavily influenced by music, black metal and everything, heavy metal stuff, really dark events. Before, [I listened to] very hardcore stuff but eventually I was getting old, I was like, tama na yung ingay na to. ‘Di ko masyado trip ‘yung extreme, really violent, satanic shit. Nakakatuwa yung concept pero after a while paulit-ulit lang. It’s just random white noise na paulit-ulit. The way [metal bands] recorded stuff, they would get everything that’s cheap, like cheap mics and a really shitty drumset. They wanted to have that kind of coldness in their recordings. I wanted to have that vibe in my work. Really minimalist and cold, something like that.

[I like the artist] Burzum. He had a band where they murdered one of their guitarists. [It was a scandal] in the music scene in the 90s. One of them got out, and he’s the Burzum guy. Heavy shit ‘to. They killed one of their guitarists, I don’t know if it was accidental or something. Their first vocalist killed himself, very Kurt Cobain-ish, shotgun through his throat and everything. One of them went through the window [of the house where the vocalist killed himself] because everything else was locked and he saw him lying down, [dead]. And his first instinct, instead of calling the police, was to get a camera and take a photo of it. And it became the [cover art] for Mayhem’s album, “Dawn of the Blackhearts.” You’d see the actual vocalist [on the cover].

cos2 Showing his maturity through his obsession with medium and materials, Zicarelli takes the conceptualism behind his work to the next level by conjuring up more of his personal life, as seen in “Dear Father, Show Me the Stars. Dear Mother, Show Me How Far.” while still retaining the darkness that he is known for. Photo by JL JAVIER  

You played bass for the noise band Pastilan Dong. Has playing music always been a part of your life?

This was my first gig ever with a band. Si Kaloy (frontman of Pastilan Dong) just needed a bassist and I told him I’m not the greatest bassist but I have a bass. Sabi niya, “Yeah, yeah, madali lang 'to, it’s just two chords per song” so sabi ko game ako. We were getting recognized and [I was surprised].

Do you consider yourself more of an artist than a musician?

I started as an artist but I had this show in Silverlens where I did this ambient drone music. I did a soundtrack for my own show. “Into the Abyss: (white album).” That show was very music-oriented. That was the first ever music [project] that I did on my own. It was fun naman.

Do you feel like your art and your music are always interconnected?

I wanted all my shows to be connected to music and all. But I guess people didn’t really get it. Or di naman they didn't get it. Music, they felt like it was a high school thing.

I get what you mean. It’s this thing where they feel that music is confined to pop culture and that it has no place in high art.

Yeah, parang ganun. People didn’t get it much especially collectors, and I needed to get some money, so I had to do something that sells. I’m also spending too much on materials for sculptures [and everything].

I was doing very music-oriented drawings and people didn’t get it. Nobody wants to buy a dead musician’s portrait. I drew Kurt Cobain once. I really enjoyed that but eventually... The last show I did for Silverlens was still kinda heavy on music, but not too much. In a way, I kept doing the same stuff for four years because I really enjoyed doing graphite and it was the medium that I really enjoyed.

What’s your darkest or most gothic piece of work?

This was my first show in Silverlens in 2011. I did a bunch of skulls, 43 skulls made out of charcoal powder, so they’re pure black, really, really black. I didn’t want to make skulls in resin and just paint them black. I really find it cheap in a way, parang PD lang sa film where you just paint it black. I didn’t want an easy way out. So I was thinking, what material can I use to make the skull naturally black? So I took charcoal powder and ground it really finely and mixed it with resin. It worked out perfectly and it felt like some ashes-to-ashes shit. I did 42 skulls representing the 27 Club. Based on Wikipedia, there were 42 deaths under the 27 Club. (There was one skull that was really crumpled and crushed, and I was like, “That’s Kurt Cobain.”) [But it was 43 because] I had an extra one made just in case, or for personal use. [Shortly after I had the skulls made,] Amy Winehouse [died]. And she was the new [addition to the 27 Club]. And I had an extra skull.

Can you tell me about the concept behind your show at Art Informal, “Prelude to a Billion Years?”

[My past work] had me thinking what to do next, how to evolve because I’m turning 32 this year. [I told myself,] this time, no skulls, no gothic shit, no morbid stuff, no music stuff. Let’s do something personal. Let’s do something fun. I’m really obsessed with materials. So I wanted it to be material-wise and more conceptual. I haven’t done a painting since 2009. And I didn’t want to transfer the stuff I was doing from paper to canvas, I don’t like the idea behind that. I like the feel of pencil on paper, it feels more natural. So for this painting, I wanted to do something totally different, something totally not connected to my drawings conceptually.

cos3.jpg When he thought about his concept for his Art Informal show, Zicarelli says he wanted to do something more personal, more fun. "This time, no skulls, no gothic shit, no morbid stuff, no music stuff... So I said, let’s do something based on a Filipino motif, so that motif is based on a Ginebra San Miguel bottle — the angel stabbing the demon." Photo by JL JAVIER  

I did this wallpaper concept. I manually penciled wallpaper motifs. [When I go to Art Informal,] it has this very architectural feel. It’s like an old house. Ang ganda kasi ng placing niya so every time I do a show in AI, I always have to connect to the architectural form of the house. So I did shaped canvases and wallpaper motifs just to have this house ambience. I first did some normal wallpaper motifs that I got from the internet but it felt unnatural because I just got them from the internet and people would say, oh I know that motif. Though those motifs were designed a [long time ago] in the 60s or 70s but now because of the internet everybody’s trying to modernize them so nawawala yung history niya. I didn’t really feel anything out of it, so I decided to make my own motif. It’s the same motif in this new exhibit. [points to his work in West gallery] So I said, let’s do something based on a Filipino motif, so that motif is based on a Ginebra San Miguel bottle — the angel stabbing the demon. Yung marca demonio designed by Amorsolo. Sobrang nagustuhan ko yung concept. I’ve always wanted to work on that design pero wala pa kong idea what to do with it, so I was shifting around the devil and St. Michael in Photoshop, like how to make it look like a wallpaper. It worked and I kinda liked the design. It took me months just to figure out one perfect motif.

In AI, what I wanted was material-wise. I was gonna do this geometric sculpture and it failed. Kulang ako sa time so I didn’t really pursue it. So I decided to use failure as part of that process. For that show, I didn’t want a title, gusto ko lang pangalan ko lang or something. Material-wise and conceptually, the pieces all connect to each other but they’re just visually appreciated. But there’s this romantic [touch] to it, the Amorsolo [design], visually it’s just a wallpaper but there’s this romantic input to it.

You mentioned in some of your statements that your body of work entails “putting a less chaotic line between the subculture scene and using reality as fictional tools or vice versa.” Do you mean to say that your art is a form of romanticizing reality?

For some works, I get pieces of music events — they’re not really inspired by them, I just get small pieces and make them my own but they’re still based on [these events]. I did this big drawing of three guys with long hair, the typical [design] of metal T-shirts and everything. It was kinda based on this event; I just like the idea of street teenage kids being tough and whatever. There was an event in 1994 ... These high school kids in the States kidnapped one of their classmates. They stabbed her to death, then a few weeks went by, they went back to her, fucked her corpse for Satan. They sacrificed this virgin girl para maging famous yung band nila. They were listening to Slayer, and there’s this one track by them called “Kill, Rape, Repeat,” (Sex, Murder, Art) or something like that. They based it off from that.

So you were romanticizing the spirit of those music events.

Parang ganun. This really creepy [essence], I tried to make it as subtle and as poetic as possible without showing the creepiness. I really don’t like doing morbid stuff but I really like morbid stuff. I push morbidity and put a slight hint of Britney Spears para hindi masyado morbid.

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Zicarelli’s latest exhibit “Dear Father, Show Me the Stars. Dear Mother, Show Me How Far.” is currently running until Oct. 22 at the West Gallery, 48 West. Ave., Quezon City, while “Prelude to a Billion Years” will be on display until Oct. 8 at Art Informal, 277 Connecticut St., Mandaluyong.