Ayala Museum ArtistSpace | 2016
Ayala Museum Makati Ave. corner Dela Rosa St.Greenbelt Park, Makati City Philippines
The word refers to the act of bringing damage to form, quality, or appearance. It can mean spoiling a perfect picture, impairing an excellent state, or defacing a smooth surface. It conjures up images of breaking, twisting, or distorting, all that which renders things unappealing or unattractive. Disfigure and its cognates imply a shift to a less pleasing or desirable condition, a transformation towards the worse.
In this exhibition of new works, Johanna Helmuth paints scenes in which the self, social life, and relationships are disfigured and marred by factors that taint their ideal functioning or in some instances, cause them to be dysfunctional. As an artist, Helmuth’s subjects often explore the darker side of human tendencies and behavior, confronting our deep-set fears and anxieties. The works in this series speak of common human experiences, experiences that resonate with our own, and troubling social realities that are often relegated to the realm of the norm and simply dismissed with an attitude of nonchalance. In both symbolic and literal fashion, we see the individual succumbing to depression, helplessness, and the pressures of living up to social standards. We are presented with haunting figures of dominance and subordination, apathy, contempt and distrust. We see the weakening of the family and other social bonds, camaraderie, and values by ill intent and the seemingly harmless practice of talking behind one’s back and spreading rumors. All these images of decay and decadence prompt us to reflect on the toll our own actions collectively take on the social fabric. They raise important questions about human nature and expose its cracks and fissures.
The compositions bear her characteristic muted colors of mostly earth tones, effectively evoking a gloomy and desolate mood. Each picture tells a story, as in her past series, like snippets forming a larger narrative. Among the works are Dinning Hall, a clever metaphor for sexual appetite and uncontrolled urges; A Mother’s Cry, which depicts a suffering mother attending to a household chore while her daughter enjoys an intimate moment with someone nearby; Controlling, which shows a man on a leash held a woman; Burn Them, which shows the enactment of a clandestine move to bring harm and destroy; and a series of self-portraits depicting a girl in various states of confusion and anxiety, slowly being consumed by the pressures of her social world. Helmuth situates the scenes within the familiar space of a household, where furniture such as tables, chairs, and drawers provide a backdrop to the human subjects. This injects another dimension to the works’ presence in the sphere of our personal experiences as they unsettle the comfort that we identify with our homes.
As defeatist as her images may appear, they may still be interpreted on a more positive light if we extend the notion of disfiguring to being subjected to extremes that in the end creates something better, like a malleable metal heated and applied with intense pressure to craft a mighty sword, or a rock crystallizing into a gem after undergoing the same extreme condition. In a similar vein, to be disfigured is but a necessary stage to strengthen the human character. The bleak moments depicted in these paintings may be the very ones that can morph us into greater and more resilient individuals.
“A Painful Way To Live” 24 x 24 inches, oil on canvas, 2016