Recipes for Pathological Happiness: The RX Series
Angel Savage is back again. The alter ego of Bay Area artist Johanna Poethig, her image auspiciously appears in performances and paintings to wryly critique the “cargo cult” mentality of our free market consumerist culture. Angel Savage is the messianic matron saint of our nation’s deepest delights, dependencies and delusions. Her name embodies the contradictions within Americans’ collective unconscious: Angel promises to save the world with technologically advanced solutions, while Savage diabolically seduces it into colonialist-style compliance, never revealing her profit-motive underbelly. The “fix” she provides us all is quick, painless, sensually rewarding, and everlasting. Who could resist, and why would anyone ever want to?
In the series known as RX (Prescriptions), Angel Savage surfaces as C.E.O. of Cargo Cure Pharmaceuticals, the medical branch of Poethig’s International House of Cargo. This fictitious yet formidable corporate conglomerate continues in its tradition of generating the material goods we deify and worship. Last February at San Francisco’s SOMAR Gallery, Angel Savage satirically pedaled her company’s extensive beauty products and formula fashion rituals at the Global Glamour Summit 2000 (visit www.guttergals.com for details.) Today she returns to prescribe everything from Cargo Cure’s advanced pharmaceutical compounds to seductively packaged new age miracle cures.
Blessed with the professional authority granted through her highly visible M.D. degree, Dr. Savage dispenses chemical prescriptions that function like hi-tech snake oils. Yet Angel chooses to gently convert her patients—not overpower or intimidate them. She strategically dresses in a non-threatening costume that hybridizes two Western feminine archetypes: the hospital candy-striper and Catholic nun. The pink and white stripes that cover her body and permeate many of these paintings evoke the benevolence of girlish volunteers and matronly missionaries. Their purpose (like hers) is to save our bodies and souls through good deeds and holy insights. Besides that, Angel knows that the look of altruism is “hot” this season—and, more importantly, it sells.
In RX (Prescriptions), images and texts assert their ability to assuage age-old physical and psychological ailments, as well as those neuroses specific to our contemporary culture. These simulated Cargo Cure pharmaceuticals reduce stress, alleviate depression and reverse the nasty effects of aging. They promise to inspire a wayward generation of hedonistic capitalists to get off the couch and back into the world, finally casting aside their social anxiety disorders.
Take, for example, Omega 3. This box-like painting represents a beautifully packaged set of cigarettes infused with Omega 3 oil. This natural oil, derived from salmon, has been scientifically proven to stimulate the human circulatory system. At a time when enjoying a naughty cigarette has become an embarrassing personal stigma rather than the suave, socially acceptable habit of yesteryear, this Cargo Cure product offers smokers a brilliant antidote. We all wish we could rationally justify life-threatening vices, especially the ones that make us feel sexy and relaxed. So why not buy cigarettes that generate positive side effects to counteract carcinogenic ones? Poethig not only envisions this clever technologically advanced product (a playful linguistic pun on “smoked salmon”)—she also references the visual language of traditional Chinese medicine labels in her cigarette package’s graphic design. Omega 3 appeals to our desire for hip “East meets West” solutions to our current pathological dilemmas.
In Spring Chicken: Genomix, we find another of Poethig’s box-paintings, this time simulating a product that conjures the feminine counterpart of the Kellogg Corporation’s rooster logo. Genomix is a crispy, hi-tech convenience food that promises to provide instant Genome Project-generated therapy to keep you looking years younger. It fuses the agricultural industry’s penchant for bio-engineered foods with our human yearning for immortality, as well as our fear of growing old and obsolete in an increasingly impatient, profoundly youth-oriented society.
In other paintings, like Blue, we are reminded that low-tech therapies exist within nature and the mundane environment. Many “alternative” medical practitioners encourage envisioning a soothing color to heal the body; likewise, Poethig’s elegant rendition of a blue flower on a blue color field suggests that a contemplative walk in the garden might be all the medicine we need. In Hot Flash, a simple white mortar and pestle—the cauldron of pharmaceutical concoctions—is set against a glowing yellow background repeatedly infused with the words “hot flash”. But rather than a mix of chemicals, a festive purple polka dot fan emerges from within the mortar. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that for centuries, a simple hand-held fan sufficed to cool down the menopausal body in place of estrogen pills.
RX is the Latin abbreviation for “recipe.” In this continuing House of Cargo series, Poethig cooks up aesthetic therapies spiced with a generous helping of humor and more than a pinch of irony. Dr. Savage angelically dispenses Cargo Cures that delightfully coerce us into confronting our personal and collective maladies. Seduced into recognizing our consumer habits with more acuity, we begin to see the complex psychological deceptions they produce and reproduce worldwide.
Clearly, we are plagued by having too much, too fast. There is an over-abundance of stuff, too many options, too much information—and too little time to make wiser life choices. Instead, we settle for retail therapy and shop till we drop, wondering how we ended up so physically exhausted and psychologically spent. We medicate ourselves rather than learn how to fully experience a broader range of emotions, discomfort included. We cultivate the convenience of individualism instead of committing the time and energy required to create significant personal relationships. Moreover, the advertising, entertainment and tourist industries (sponsored by corporate patrons) whet the global appetite for an American-style infatuation with products, ever-increasing speed, efficiency at all costs, and self-serving individualism. Even when other cultures refuse to adopt such American models locally, they are often nonetheless enlisted to produce goods that satisfy our society’s voracious consumer demands. We may individually or collectively determine ways to resist aspects of these cultural and economic models, but we can never locate our position outside of them.
Although her House of Cargo works elicit such critical observations, Johanna Poethig does not patronize or morally condemn her viewers through her artmaking practices. Angel Savage may feign being a nun, but she refuses to preach dogmatically or offer singular solutions to these enormously complicated issues. Alternatively, the artist represents the complex levels of complicity we experience as Americans living within a globalized capitalist economy. To varying degrees, we deeply believe in—and derive great pleasure from—boldly imagining, laboriously producing as well as eagerly consuming that which is (brand) “new and improved,” in art and in other realms of life. That seems to be our RX for 21st Century psychic survival, bloody side effects and all.
Lydia Matthews, October 2000