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Juicy toxins: Johanna Poethig and the art of Wasak

on February 8, 2009

By Carlos Davalos/Oakland North

Johanna Poethig’s art has a straight message: It’s crazy out there.

The North Oakland artist’s latest work-in-progress is a series of large-scale canvases that take her ideas about public art into a more radical arena of political madness, cultural confusion and community consciousness. She calls it Wasak!!, in a nod to the Philippines, where the art has just gone on display.

The word “wasak” is a commonly used term in Philippines’ slang. It’s one of those words whose meaning mutates depending on circumstances and context. Youngsters lean on that word all the time, as a way of saying that something is wack or “off the hook.”

The word attracted me, I wanted to know how it became a cultural and artistic junction between an American artist and her affair with an Asian country, the Philippines.

It’s an afternoon that seems not so much calm as somehow calmed, a gray piece of Monday that perfectly matches the anonymity of her North Oakland street. It’s November, probably the most indifferent month of the year, a preparation period before real winter sets in.

Poethig greets me at the door, wine glass in hand, and immediately leads me to the back patio, a large empty space capable of holding several pieces of art at the same time or a good, 100-person brain-blowing party. Then we got to her studio, which blows up the mundane day. It’s jammed with paintings, sketches, paintbrushes, music cassettes and an artillery of electro-pastel colors waiting on their little plastic plates. It is, to dive right into it, wasak!!

“Wasak it’s a great word, it’s ironic and playful at the same time,” Poethig says to me, while vigorously waving her arms around. “All this destruction, all this things falling apart … that’s wasak!!”

Poethig, 52, is a svelte woman with flat-straight tow colored hair barely brushing her shoulders. She has a sharp face, with an implacable aquiline nose. Her thin mouth is relaxed. Her slender contour resembles, from certain cheeky angles, Iggy Pop’s lizard-esque pose.

Poethig is a multifaceted artist who has worked in public with both visual and performance pieces. Her work has been exhibited internationally, and she has been actively creating art through murals, paintings and performance for more than two decades. She was the first one to paint a Harvey Milk mural in the Bay Area.

Poethig’s ideas about art have been carved by the clash of two completely different cultures. She spent most of her youth in the Philippines, with her missionary parents. She lived in Manila and learned Tagalog. Since coming back, she has lived in important art-driven American cities (Chicago, New York, and Oakland among others) – places familiar with creative forces, communities where shouting incendiary satire, doing strong feminist acts or trying to generate an organic political consciousness is not only normal, but innate.

Cultural influence – and domination sometimes – is one of the side effects of being a colony for a long time (the Philippines were a Spanish colony first and then an American one, gaining total independence in 1945) but Poethig sees it the other way around, as a cultural submission. And with her realistic, socially driven ideas about cultural control, Poethig seem to flirt with an extremist position. Her steel-filtered representations of our obsession with a 24-7, hard armored, self-secured lifestyle could be interpreted as necessary social detox. The carbon dioxide fantasy that powered the 20th Century slowly drains out the harsh environmental reality threatening some elements of our existence. Or just paranoia-driven bodies going to work – semi-urban, anesthetized collages of industrial streets, poverty paradises and military vehicles used by Little League teams.

Poethig’s Driven (2007) is a good example of this, a series of portraits of “American angst developing like a negative from the bath of billboards, sound bites and banner ads we live in. Advertisers offer us beauty, because we feel ugly. They show us family because we feel lonely. And they proffer military-style SUVs because we fear invasion,” said San Francisco Art Institute’s Meredith Tromble.

“Poethig satirizes the American propensity to seek safety in ways that endanger us,” Tromble continues – gas-guzzlers are on a jubilation ride, while the environment is almost dead and “people are haunted by the incongruities of their safe choices.”

Driven (2007)

Driven (2007)

The gilded world of glamorous art rarely credits a mixed-media mural about social struggles in say, the Tenderloin. But far away from that “sophisticated” radar of bourgeoisie art, daily social struggles serve as potent nutrients for expression; Poethig’s ideas about the Tenderloin area are pointed references to the spot, something that evokes identity and social union between the residents.

Her work, as well as its toughness, has given Poethig a secure spot in the public art circuit.  “Her passion for the anthropological aspects, it’s just enormous – this is one of the main motors in her work,” says Brian Lackzo, a Bay Area architect who has collaborated with Poethig for the past five years. “Her missionary parents inculcated in her social values and that’s hugely important. And at the same time, the aesthetics is really at the core of who she is as an artist. So those two things together have driven her.”

Watching Poethig at her studio, it strikes you that everything there has a specific meaning, including her. It’s her well-organized mess; her eye is on everything. She carefully moves from one corner of her studio to the opposite one, jumping between unfinished canvases resting on the floor. Five human-sized paintings lined up against the far wall comprise the main work-in-progress: Wasak: A manifesto.

The fusion between Poethig’s work and the manifesto pointedly examines the post-colonial ironies of the Philippines, its relationship to the United States layered in images, icons, and the transmutations of language.

The paintings have the word wasak written all over them. Sparkling thoughts of invasion and defiant juxtapositions of symbols pierce a chaotic clash of war and beauty figures. One image has an ordinary urban silhouette with night-vision goggles, as words of colonialism float out of his head. Another painting has a beauty queen figure (she is wearing a beauty pageant sash across her torso that says “Miss Sub-Colonial”) with the word chismosa – “gossip” – coming out of her mouth and infrared eyes on her high-heeled shoes.

“It starts off from language,” Poethig explains while resting her glasses on her head. “The paintings talk about language and how we all transform through language. We have a Spanish word, which is also a Tagalog word; so it is about these sub-colonialities, the things that happen underneath all the layers of history and how they change today.”

The paintings use excerpts from “taglish” and “englog” sources, as well as an actual manifesto, written by  Lourd De Veyra, and an album title of hers as well, Tanginamo Andamin Nagugutom a Mundo Fashionista Ka Parin (Motherfucker, people are starving and you are still a fashionista).

Wasak Notes on by Lourd De Veyra
1. The word was made flesh,
2. That word is Wasak.
3. Wasak describes the fundamental essence of chaos that is the cosmos; from the next room you can hear a violent, retching sound.
4. Wasak defines all things, beautiful and ugly, it connotes extremes, true art has no regard for the middling and the insignificant. Mediocrity is its true enemy. No middle ground exists.
5. Between being and nothingness is Wasak. Young priest. The smell of sulfur. The desert as starscape. Pavement rules and  Stephen Malkmus is the Grace Kelly of indie rock.
6. And the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary: Wasak.
7. As a contemporary expression of both the superlatively functional and the fantastically futile. The physical embodiment of that is a cinderblock.
8. Wasak sums up all that is inherently contradictory and inexplicable. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon, not in the literal terms of physical destruction but in terms of degrees of shock and artifice.
9.  If it can’t be defined, it is not Wasak.  Means if it CAN be defined?
10. In a certain way, Wasak also describes the damaged, fragmented and ironic culture that is the Philippines. Wasak is envisioned as a theory embracing the monstrous amalgam of aesthetic concepts and influences –from the ancient to the postmodern, from the highbrow-academic to the ultimately pedestrian.
11. Wasak evokes the element of destruction, a process by which all things are constantly reborn. Destruction, to quote Bakunin, is the greatest form of art.And Bert Sulat Jr. dances the cha-cha-cha like a sissy girl.
12. Like the Italian futurists, Wasak believes in war as the world’s way of exercising hygiene. Only idiot peaceniks will put their faith in diplomacy. Such recidivists should be executed. Mode of death: live white doves jammed down their throats Above their corpses, a whisper of feathers.

“I included historical juxtapositions in Wasak, but also the innocent things, like the little ducklings,” Poethig says. “All these images that came to me almost dreamlike. Like the can on the fashionista’s nose, that can is what they put on dogs that they are about to slaughter and eat.”

When Poethig started plotting out the paintings in her head, she was thinking about sub-colonials, super humans and hybrid figures. “I keep thinking about how are we evolving and manipulating ourselves,” she said. “A dark vision of the world…. like the Futurists, in the manifesto.”

Wasak is a triumphant crown for Poethig after years and years of struggles and defeats. The challenge, Poethig said, was maintaining her creative confidence for thirty years in a competitive and hard-nosed marketplace. When applying for the projects and grants that sustain artists there frequent rejection, and disappointment is a persistent ghost crawling outside the door.

“My sister coined the phrase ‘the House of Disappointment’ for me,” Poethig said. “So I just go into it, lie in the fetal position for a short time and then get up and get out.”

Poethig remembers her Chicago “Loop Tattoo” mural as a striking lesson. She spent a year researching and designing the process and then two months leading a team of people painting it, and then, once it was finished and ready to install on a high-rise building in downtown Chicago, she was informed that a parking garage owner decided not to let her and her team access an area where they needed to put scaffolding to reach the wall.

“It was late fall and winter was approaching and soon it would not be possible to install it,” Poethig remembered. “This was devastating. Many tears were shed.  But in the end – after a couple of painful months – the sponsors of the project [the Chicago Public Art Group and Loop Alliance] got a lawyer, found a way around him and the work was installed right away!”

At the end of our conversation, after free-riding along the edge of the canyon that separates society from a decadent, battery-driven life that might homogenize cultures, Poethig laughed ironically at the pessimistic spine that sustains her body of work. “I really don’t know how are we going to get out of this mess,” she said.

Although human beings have proved to very resourceful in the past, in Johanna Poethig’s studio we’ve already passed the last point of return. Now, we are at the breakpoint where preparation for extinction is the best viable path.

The word Wasak pretty much wraps up all the madness and confusion happening today. It implies the contradictions of the environmental consciousness explosion against the oil-driven, military expansions of today’s empires. It also refers to the accidental forces that collide in order to close community gaps; like Poethig, trying to build bridges between the two sides of all the cultural cracks around her, that’s Wasak!!

All images courtesy Johanna Poethig.


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