Listening to lichen: Johanna Poethig’s ‘Hideouts, Escape Hatches, and a Submarine’ unites biology, technology

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Mercury 20 Gallery/Courtesy

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Responding to the jarring silence of a shut-down urban society, Bay Area visual and performance artist Johanna Poethig strived for sanctuary in the sublime wilderness. Drawing inspiration from her father’s death and her brother’s plant science expertise, Poethig’s artistic soul-searching encouraged her to combine the personal with the universal, portraying notions of algorithmic consciousness as it moves through earth and space in her newest exhibition, “Hideouts, Escape Hatches, and a Submarine” at the Mercury 20 Gallery.

From cells to the cosmos, Poethig’s exhibit explores science’s material processes on both a micro and macro scale. One of her larger pieces, “Earth Station Garden” — an 84” by 84” acrylic painting on canvas — masterfully blends these concepts with an eye for ethereal escapism. Soft brushstrokes form the elongated leaves of mysterious plants, while stenciled circles spiral on top of one another and assemble shapes that simultaneously resemble microscopic cell walls and vast extraterrestrial portals. Elsewhere in the painting, yellow flowers pay homage to spring, while supple succulents sing songs of summer. Poethig’s expansive work demonstrates her keen expertise in playing with perspective; these avant-garde botanical representations invite viewers to imagine stepping into the painting’s supernatural universe. 

Several other monumental pieces rely on spiraling optics that allow onlookers to enter a trance-like state of mind as they gaze at Poethig’s futuristic creations. Notably, “Escape Hatch Algorithm,” a 10’ by 10’ acrylic work on canvas, uses these circular configurations to welcome observers into its captivating hypnosis. With prominent pinks and touches of turquoise, the 8’ by 8’ acrylic on canvas titled “Magenta Portal” does the same. Assertive yet intricate stencil techniques form whimsical swirls that are equal parts meditative and exhilarating — a commendable blend of psycho-physical sensations that represent the symbiotic cycles that occur in the metaphysical world. These jolly giants are contrasted by her smaller pieces, which reside toward the back of the exhibition.

Poethig’s smaller works rely on tangible representations of communication between people, plants and physics. Among these is her 12” by 12” acrylic piece on wood titled “Enlichening,” which depicts a microphone covered in lichen plants. This clever play on words symbolizes the unspoken forms of communication that occur between natural forces. The lichen — a notoriously complex symbiotic plant formation that serves fungi and algae — is emblematic of this mutualism. Furthermore, Poethig’s picture toys with shadows, which seem to represent the highs and lows of humanity’s interference with environmental operations. Finally, this piece relies on gray brushstrokes to represent nature’s connection with the technological realm. 

Pieces with similar themes include “Radiotrophic,” “Terraqueous” and “Cosmopolitan Bodies,” all of which blend concrete objects with abstract depictions of plant life. From wires to telephones to television screens to cell towers, Poethig’s work refutes arguments surrounding the ugliness of industrial society.  When placed alongside fruitful fungi, flora and fauna, Poethig highlights the unsuspecting beauty within these mechanical artifacts.

The exhibit also contains portraits of both people and trees, highlighting the uncanny resemblance between these central figures. These literal illustrations ground this esoteric exhibition with humility, preventing observers from becoming overwhelmed by abstraction. Poethig’s cohesive color palette blends vibrant magentas and chartreuses with haunting grays and blacks to further promote the collection’s juxtaposing themes. 

Sitting in the center of Poethig’s exhibit is an avant-garde representation of a submarine, which is composed of various paintings, sculptures, tchotchkes, objects, dolls and electronics. Poethig opted to sculpt human mouths onto the top of the submarine’s periscopes, which she claims represent humans’ interference with nature through warfare. Additionally, Poethig cites Peter Richards, Joyce Hsu and Chris Brown for helping contribute art pieces that form the submarine. 

A striking blend of mathematics and abstractions, “Hideouts, Escape Hatches, and a Submarine” combines stencil, photo, sketch and paint to reflect the hidden harmonies between haptics and humanity. With humorous references to technology and pristine pictures of pastoral scenery, each piece in this vast collection allows viewers to walk the blurred binary between technology and nature in surprisingly comfortable shoes.

Contact Piper Samuels at [email protected].