et al. 2020 | Jon Cuyson on David Medalla

David Medalla, David Magarshak, 1963, pen on yellow paper, 25.4 x 20.3 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
David Medalla, Taong kumukuha ng puhad ng balinsasayan (Man gathering the swift bird’s nest), 1986–1991, oil on canvas, 190.5 x 156.2 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
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CoBo Social Market News Reports

 

On the back of a framed oil painting that once hung in my Manila living room were the words, “This painting is not my work” in black marker. Turning to the collector whom I had invited into my home, I asked, “What does it mean?” Looking disappointed, he answered, “It’s not his work.” I looked at him for a moment before he said, “It means it’s fake.”

I remember watching episodes like this on British television, where the owner of a prized painting or object is caught on camera, struggling to make sense of the revelation. There was no camera in front of me but at that moment, I too struggled. Images of me looking at the red abstract oil painting flashed before my eyes, I remembered that moment of reflection very clearly.

 

David Medalla, David Magarshak, 1963, pen on yellow paper, 25.4 x 20.3 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Everything was a blur. How was it possible for me to not see that the work was not by David Medalla? I’ve admired his diverse body of work for decades. David was and still is considered
to be a pioneer of kinetic art while writing, publishing, painting and doing performance art.

It was because of David I joined performances by my artist friends while in college in Baguio City. It was in 1987, when I was a freshman, when I embraced the burgeoning art scene in Session Road with senior artists such as Santiago Bose, Roberto Villanueva and Rene Aquitania. Like me, they too admired David’s work.

David is considered the quintessential artist for artists, even Marcel Duchamp agreed. After all, he presented David with a “medallic object” in the Sixties. Imagine being acknowledged by Marcel Duchamp himself? I can’t even begin to fathom how it must have felt for David to be friends with an artist who revolutionized art.

I realized, in that moment of revelation, I was trying to distract myself.

As I kept looking at the fake painting, I began to panic. What would David think? I hope he doesn’t think that I made this? I can always tell him the name of the gallerist who sold me the painting. It wasn’t my fault. In retrospect the gallerist was rumored to be allegedly selling fake works, but I was just too eager to own one of David’s works. It was even published in a reputable book by a reputable critic. How could it be a fake painting? My head began to hurt.

It doesn’t matter. I should have known better. I should have checked. I even took pride in being able to see the connection between his poetry and how the words manifested in the paintings. How stupid I was, I thought. It seems I can’t even remember the words written across this red oil painting that’s staring back at me, mocking me.

 

I realized, in that moment of revelation, I was trying to distract myself.

 

The only other person not laughing is the collector standing in my living room waiting for me to return his money which I didn’t have. I offered to trade “it” with a work by another artist that he also admired, to which he agreed, thankfully.

After he left that morning, the painting still looked back at me, still taunting me.

Who would do this? What kind of person would pass off a work for another, let alone an artist of international renown? I heard myself answering my own questions. Actually there’s quite a list of art forgers who have succeeded in passing off masters works as original. I recall reading an article by The Independent in 2010, saying that 20% of all artworks in museums around the world could be counterfeit masterpieces. There are even a few documentaries about such works and yes, there is also one convicted art criminal who has his own television show on how to create fake masters paintings.

 

David Medalla, Taong kumukuha ng puhad ng balinsasayan (Man gathering the swift bird’s nest), 1986–1991, oil on canvas, 190.5 x 156.2 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

I suppose being able to copy a master’s work is a testament to one’s skill. In fact, I even ask my art students to copy works by famous artists as part of learning the process of painting.

Obviously this does not make one equal to the original, no matter how skilled, but copying a masterpiece with intent to fraud is criminal and rebellious.

Part of the artist’s process requires one to draw from one’s own experiences, to shape it with everything one has in order to will it to exist in the world without compromise. This is what makes Marcel and David’s work brilliant.

But what do I know? I’m an art forgery victim.

I began to inspect the painting again to see if there was some hope for redemption. And then I thought, as I stared at the red blobs of oil paint; what would David do?

I looked at what he wrote at the back of the painting again and with a rebellious urge, I grabbed the nearest tube of paint, and using David’s own words; I squeezed the grey paint over the red blobs on the canvas, and letter after letter, I angrily spelled, “This work is not mine.” And it felt good.

Without anyone’s permission, I turned the fake painting into a “real” one. I made it mine.

 

David Medalla, born 1942, is a Filipino international artist. His work ranges from sculpture and kinetic art to painting, installation and performance. He lives and works in London and Berlin.

 

 
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