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Artist Johanna Helmuth Seeks the Truth by Exposing Human Imperfections

Her installation for #ArtFair2022 is her own way of offering prayers.

by James Tana
Mar 3, 2022

(SPOT.ph) When 29-year-old Johanna Helmuth was starting out as a visual artist, she spent her days painting in a small studio in Biñan, Laguna. She eventually moved to a more spacious work area in Bacoor, Cavite, but still, it wasn't enough for the changing sizes and shapes of her work. Now a few weeks away from Art Fair Philippines 2022, she is on the final stretch of a mammoth undertaking as one of the much-awaited event's featured artists; and she couldn't be more thankful that she's producing her newest works in her current and bigger studio in San Juan in Manila.

For the 10th installment of the fair, Helmuth is recreating the tradition of offering prayer candles in churches using sculpted resins. Exaggerated in size and made more distinct by their colors, these objects symbolize the overarching narrative of the works: the people’s belief and reliance on the power of prayers.

"Alam mo ‘yong sa simbahan? Naalala ko pa dati kapag sobrang problemado ka mas madaming kandila tinitirik mo. Mas marami kang dasal, mas maraming alay [na kandila]," she says in an interview with SPOT.ph.

These large-scale sculptures include three paintings and are collectively called Nakasalalay sa Lakas ng Dasal.

johanna helmuth
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu
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johanna helmuth studio in san juan
Johanna Helmuth amid big canvases in her studio in San Juan, Manila
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu
Johanna Helmuth
Nakasalalay sa Lakas ng Dasal on display at Ayala Tower One Fountain Area 
PHOTO BY Christa I. De La Cruz

Also read:
10 Artists to Watch at Art Fair Philippines 2022
Everything You Need to Know About Art Fair Philippines 2022
Artist Derek Tumala Sounds the Alarm on Climate Crisis

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Johanna Helmuth on scaling up the space, scaling up the artistic practice  

"Six months ako doon, walang Internet, walang TV, [at] signal ang hirap pa. Ang kailangan mo lang gawin ay magpinta. Kakain ka, [ma]tutulog ka, magpipinta, ‘yon lang talaga," she narrates while recalling her experience at her studio in Laguna for her very first solo exhibition Disfigure (2016, Ayala Museum Artists’ Space). 

Disfigure by Johanna Helmuth
"Controlling" by Johanna Helmuth (36 x 36 inches, oil on canvas, 2016)
PHOTO BY Website/Johanna Helmuth

"Noong palaki na nang palaki ang work ko, hindi na siya okay. Di ko kaya mag-paint sa bahay kasi may rules. Bawal dumihan ‘yong floor, bawal igalaw ‘yong furniture, kumbaga masisira talaga ‘yong look ng bahay kapag nag-paint ka lalo na pag malalaki. Kung nasa sarili kang space, may freedom ka to do whatever you want. Wala kang time limit," she explains.

Her current studio has just enough space for large-scale paintings. PHOTO: Jilson Tiu

Helmuth, a fine arts advertising graduate from the Technological University of the Philippines, still remembers the advice that her fellow artists and alumni Mark Andy Garcia, Dex Fernandez, Lynyrd Paras, and Doktor Karayom gave her. Fernandez once told her: "You paint for [yourself]. Gawin mo lang ang gusto mong gawin," while Paras reminded her: "If I wanted to paint something really [coming] from me. I should be the one to know kung anong subject ‘yon."

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She particularly notes how Paras led by example as her very first mentor and at some point unconsciously influenced her to paint figurations. "Makikita mo ‘yong discipline niya in his studio, nakikita mo ‘yon, ma-apply mo rin ‘yon sa sarili mo."

johanna helmuth at work
Helmuth often uses shades of prominent gray and blue.
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu
johanna helmuth studio
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu
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Known for her textured application using a palette knife, Helmuth outlines her subjects using a brush and fills them with oil paints. While she mixes instinctively, the result is still her desired shades of prominent gray and blue. She explains that the transition of her color palette, from bright to neutral and muted hues, reflects her changing moods and emotions as well as the way she calmly views the world at present.

"Kung nasa maliit na canvas ako, ang nagagamit ko lang sa paleta ko ito langso hindi ako ganoon ka-relax," she says, pointing to a small palette knife. "So kung [big canvas] ‘yong gagamitin ko, mas free, mas comfortable for me to work nang mas marami [na palette knife]."

Makeshift
"Makeshift Home" by Johanna Helmuth (fabric, plastic, wood on metal pedicab bike fame, 2018)
PHOTO BY Website/Johanna Helmuth

Change is one thing constant in Helmuth’s practice and it is apparent in Makeshift (2018, Blanc Gallery), an exhibition where she dabbled in making an installation that eventually received the Fernando Zobel Prize for Visual Arts at the Ateneo Art Awards. "Makeshift Home," an installation piece, visually translates her personal experience and daily interactions with padyak (pedicab) drivers who transform their pedicabs into temporary houses.

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Women Aren’t Toys by Johanna Helmuth
"Women Aren’t Toys" by Johanna Helmuth (2ft x 2ft x 2ft, acrylic and fabric on resin, 2016)
PHOTO BY Website/Johanna Helmuth

"There are some ideas na hindi mo lang siya mata-translate sa painting. So, if i-try mo siyang gawing resin or i-try mo siya gawing installation baka it would be translated better," she adds. In the previous years, she experimented on an interactive video installation for her second solo Women Aren’t Toys (2016, Secret Fresh Gallery), an exhibition about finding her own footing and empowering the women close to her.

When asked about the importance of the representation of women artists in an industry that is seemingly dominated by males, she raises another possibility through an inquiry. "Dominated ba talaga siya ng male? Parang ang daming women artists na. Ang daming strong women artists, ang daming gallery owners and managers na babae na ang galing na I look up to. Kasama sila sa community." 

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Helmuth's technique involves the use of a palette knife, which contributes to the texture of her figurative paintings. PHOTO: Jilson Tiu

Confronting the self by being reckless and exposing imperfections

The ugly and the imperfect are part and parcel of human existence and one’s relation to the world.  Helmuth’s paintings make sense of these relationships—from employing a specific technique that permits recklessness to depict her subjects— she exposes the voids, ironies, and social ills within a domestic space or a household as seen in Lie of the Land (2017, West Gallery). The exhibition anchors on the idea that human relationships alone could be horrifying, but the need to examine such relations and confront these horrors in order to depict reality may be deemed necessary.

Lie of the Land by Johanna Helmuth
"Side Line" by Johanna Helmuth (Oil on paper, 2017, 25.5 in x 20 in)
PHOTO BY Website/Johanna Helmuth

According to her, it is through the process of painting that she is able to unburden herself of emotions that only hinder her from growing as an individual. "Kung na-translate ko na siya sa painting, pag tiningnan ko na siya ulit di na siya ganoon kabigat."

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johanna helmuth sneak peek for art fair philippines
Details of Helmuth's new paintings for Art Fair Philippines 2022 
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu
johanna helmuth sneak peek for art fair philippines
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu

The same can be said about her works for the fair—the exploration of human relations and the visual representation of a personal and existential conundrum—but only this time, the artist is more hopeful.

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"Iyong eyes niya very mulat na mulat. [In] desperate need kasi ‘yong nangyayari sa amin ngayon [kaya] gusto ko i-highlight ‘yon. I really want her to be brave," she points out while referring to the painting of her older sister, who is depicted to be passionately praying in the piece titled "Maybe You Can Hear Me."

"Taking Over," another painting, illustrates the likelihood that humans will perish but nature will continue to exist and persist, asserting its space in this world. "Back to the Beginning," on the other hand, mirrors her state of mind, which is being at peace in the presence of her closest friend and being comfortable in the middle of nowhere even without material possessions.  

For Art Fair Philippines 2022, Helmuth is creating large-scale sculptures and three paintings that are collectively called "Nakasalalay sa Lakas ng Dasal." PHOTO: Jilson Tiu

Being inspired and finding a purpose in life through art-making

Reminiscing on her early days, she narrates how fellow artists, both up and coming and established, have inspired her to continue with her practice.

"Kung ngayon na provided ka [ng resources], di ka na nahihirapan na gawin siya, parang blessed. Sobrang iba noon at sa ngayon. Tapos ngayon, it’s all about helping my family."

"Nakakatuwa na makarinig from students na gusto [maging] artists na they’re inspired by your works; that they will continue to create their works kasi nakita nila iyong gawa mo na kung babalik ako noon, ganiyan din ako noong nakita ko iyong gawa ni Elaine Navas, ni Elmer Borlongan. Ang sarap i-continue kasi iyong purpose na you’re doing something sa life mo, na you’re doing something na kung bakit ka nabuhay," she adds.

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The days spent in solitude to produce artworks are some of her most cherished—not being able to do so would be unimaginable for her.

"Di ko maisip na magtuloy-tuloy. Basta magkaroon ako ng materials para makapagpinta ako kasi iyon talaga ang nakatulong sa akin, kasi iyon ang pinaka-bravest ko, iyon pinaka-happy time ko, pinaka-safe ko na place. Iyong energy na pinu-put ko doon ang pinakamasaya ako," she says with conviction.

johanna helmuth at work
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu
johanna helmuth tattoo
PHOTO BY Jilson Tiu
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The canvas leaning on all corners of the walls, a rolling cart containing her paints and palette knives, and a portable speaker continuously playing calming music that fills the room where Helmuth stays and works; all paint a picture of the everyday scene inside her space. Her studios throughout the years are muted witnesses to her journey as an artist—a life that is not easy but definitely the kind of life she prayed for. She wouldn’t have it in any other way.  

Art Fair Philippines 2022 runs from March 23 to April 1 at Ayala Triangle Gardens, Paseo De Roxas Street corner Makati Avenue corner Ayala Avenue, Makati City. For more information, visit Art Fair Philippines' website.

UPDATED (March 22): This article has been edited to include Johanna Helmuth's work on display at Ayala Triangle Gardens for Art Fair Philippines.

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