Survival of the Wittiest

Artist Jevijoe Vitug cleverly portrays the struggle of immigrants caught in the teeth of the Great Recession


Photo by Zack W

Opportunity is supposed to knock—not knock and run away like a kid playing a prank.

Yet the Great Recession is no prank, putting a dent in the American dream not just for natives of this country who at least recall more robust times, but particularly for recent immigrants who haven’t even had a shot at prosperity on these shores.

Frustration finds expression in ways both civic and aesthetic. Occupy Wall Street protests fulfilled the former. Heartfelt art addresses the latter.

“The sky is the limit when you get here,” says Filipino-born artist Jevijoe Vitug, who arrived stateside in 2007, purchased a home in Las Vegas in 2008 and lost it to a short sale this year. “The recession hit when I came here, but you cannot see that because you’re really happy. But then it changes. It shifted my perspective to just survival of everyday life.”

Struggling to endure the rough times when you’ve never known the flush times in a country you’ve yet to really know at all is the theme coursing through How To’s, the 35-year-old’s series of socially pointed yet humorous oil paintings on display at the Winchester Cultural Center Gallery.

Survival is the goal, but How To’s is, in fact, a “how-to” in artistic form. Utilizing Asian-style design, corporate symbolism and religious iconography, the pieces serve as both commentary and guidebook, employing arrows so patrons can follow Vitug’s suggestions for practical living in tight times. While he depicts Filipino figures as representative of the immigrant theme, his advice is applicable to all.

“When we [lost the house], I was asking, ‘Why? Why?’” says Vitug, the married father of two small children, his family now living in a Las Vegas apartment.

Hardship inspired the piece titled “How to Build a Sustainable Home.” Woven in a style reminiscent of a Persian rug, it displays a collection of Vegas-type houses and energy-saving panels. Framed by familiar logos including American Express, Citibank, Bank of America and Mastercard, it suggests the Money Class is circling like sharks.

“I realized with the banks, they’re just making money from my house,” he says. “There are people who are surviving by building a sustainable home. The heat of the sun just passes through those panels.”

Addressing the same theme with a more playful vibe is “How to Carpool and Still Party,” in which revelers are redistributed from several cars into a single limousine, spilling out of the sunroof and making merry. “The limousine is practical,” Vitug says. “It turns into public transportation.” Straightforwardly titled “How to Have a Life That Should Be Totally Cheap” pictures a woman on a bicycle eschewing the car culture, surrounded by logos of gas companies, including Chevron and Shell, that we could toss out of our lives.

Metaphorical and Vegas-specific, “How to Build Your Own Barrel Raft” depicts icons of the Strip—the old Dunes and Sahara signs, the Stratosphere tower, even a marquee trumpeting the Supremes—being swept away on an onrushing blue wave as men construct a raft to remain afloat. Vividly, it is a vision both apocalyptic and playful. Conversely, “How to Conserve Water by Bathing Together,” portraying a man and woman disrobing to do exactly that, is simple, yet sexy in a chaste fashion.

While Vitug’s tableaus are reflections on a nation no longer nirvana for newcomers, they are also strangely upbeat. Drawn in clean strokes and often pastel colors, the pieces give off a sense that the ghost of the American Dream hasn’t left the building, but is merely hiding, awaiting its inevitable cue to return.

Likewise, an easygoing optimism emanates from the boyish-looking Vitug, a man refreshingly free of artsy angst and intensity when he speaks in heavily accented English. Developing the reputation of an artist of social conscience, he hails from the province of Pampanga in the Philippines, and was drawn to the U.S. after receiving a grant.

Reconnecting via Facebook with a friend from the Philippines living in Vegas—who would soon become his wife—brought him out West, where he’s been noted for art that deals with survival, globalization, poverty and the environment. Representing the latter theme in his current exhibit is a piece titled “How to Survive an Avalanche of Waste,” in which a man struggles against a mountain of what Vitug calls “global excess,” including discarded pieces of snazzy advertising from the Vegas Strip. While it is an environmental indictment, it also fits comfortably into the idea of paring down elements of our lives in an effort to survive.

Known as well for some performance art around town, he became something of a shock sensation when he drank his own urine last summer at a local version of the London Biennale he staged at Henderson’s Pop Up Art House. Survival, once again, was the theme he was illustrating, the act based upon his childhood experience when Mount Pinatubo, a volcano in the Philippines, erupted in 1991. Trapped for three days on the roof of the family home, and with his paraplegic father, he knew his dad needed the available water first, which left few options.

Publicly at the show, Vitug drank water, peed into a cup, then consumed its contents. Startling for onlookers and gutsy of the artist, it’s a moment that has followed him. “It bothers me sometimes,” he says about the event’s aftershocks as some people immediately associate Vitug with that one moment. “People just see the act, but not the why,” he says. “They don’t think of it in terms of survival.”

(By the way: “In a military handbook on how to survive, they say that is not good,” he says. “It contains salt and impurities.”)

Contemplating survival in more traditional terms, How To’s is a beautifully rendered follow-up on that theme, a guide to living today with a hint of hope for tomorrow.

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