Johanna Helmuth lets out a laugh at the slightly incredulous look I gave her. I couldn’t help it. The Impressionists, she had said, so inspired her that she decided to pursue a career in the visual arts. Nothing seemed further from the sun-dappled landscapes that Monet and company painted en plein air than the images on the canvases piled along the walls of the 23-year-old artist’s studio in Biñan. As far as I can tell, gray—and all its 50 shades—seemed more the palette of choice here.
“Oo, totoo,” Helmuth insists. “I started reading on Impressionism in school, and I loved it! Plus at the Technological University of the Philippines, advertising students had to create with their own hands. So parang after that . . . that’s when I knew na gusto ko maging artist.” Sure enough, a heavy book on the 19th century movement lies atop a nearby stool, at the bottom of a stack that includes tomes on Anselm Kiefer and Paula Rego. Admittedly, Kiefer, with his monumental ruminations on identity, and Rego’s bold, unflinching illustrations, exert more of an influence these days. Just that morning, Helmuth posted a photo of herself with one of Rego’s huge works at Art Basel Hong Kong; she had spent the weekend at the fair.
Helmuth first caught the art crowd’s notice in 2010 at Art in the Park. She belonged to a group of art students mentored by auction mainstay Lynyrd Paras, a bunch he dubbed Studio 1616, after the address of his studio in Pandacan.
Soon enough, commercial galleries sought them out for group exhibits, and collectors started to pay attention.
Large round spectacles dominate Helmuth’s face, obscuring delicate features and giving her slight frame a geeky, somewhat tentative air. In contrast, the imagery that springs from her brushes is strong, stark, and clearly drawn. She speaks very definitively of her work—this suite of paintings will come together for her first solo exhibit, Disfigure, set for Ayala Museum’s ArtistSpace.
Roughly hewn subjects populate Helmuth’s canvases, the coarse finish resulting from her use of a palette knife to apply paint. They exist in a monochrome universe, set against backdrops devoid of details. This austerity directs viewers to focus on the figures, the discord and drama evinced in their awkward poses. There is an undercurrent of deviancy running across her paintings, especially on the tableaux presented in the six larger works.
She paints to speak of personal experiences; she makes no pretenses to any grand statements. Helmuth’s purview is limited to her circle of family, friends, and acquaintances, the goings-on in her world. Her identical twin and bosom companion, Jeanine, appears often. She describes the process of slathering pigment onto canvas as cathartic. It serves to purge frustrations and betrayals, to illustrate loneliness, to depict sexual tensions and attractions. Helmuth confronts viewers with frank depictions of domestic issues: a mother’s lament on her son’s coming out, a cheating partner, a claustrophobic relationship, the fallout from drunken revelry, a gossipy clique.
“In college, I was kind of the wallflower, observing almost everything happening, I was the silent one,” Helmuth shares. “I had no one to run to kasi I didn’t want to lay anything on my family. My paintings were my release, especially when those who hurt me were friends. But I’m not bitter, kasi I’ve learned from all of that. Before I start painting, I pray. Then, after, I forgive and forget. Papakawalan ko na lahat.”
Joanna Helmuth’s Disfigure runs until May 16 at ArtistSpace, Ayala Museum.