Consider an entrance that makes way for dark judgements: We all hate her shoes. Disgust in the superficial places distance and fortifies stylish unions, you wear the shoes I dislike, but I, I stand taller. Jamian Juliano-Villani is shoe shopping when I Skype her in her New York studio. A collector recently bought her a Givenchy pair – the gift has left her thankful, but ostracised. The lacquered Givenchy bag is an anomalous shape in her studio. It is alien material. Juliano-Villani shows me her current sneakers, a clunky pair of Hokas. Class distinctions and priorities revealed themselves with her foot raised in the air: I’m with Hoka.
Juliano-Villani is enthusiasm; her eagerness is self-deprecating but comes unstuck with flashes of passion. Seeing her paintings is like being asked to show your theatre now, to reveal your darkness. In them, turbulent ornamentation corkscrews with quivering naiveté. Ghoulish erotics, goofy furniture, opaline gradients, alienated monsters and humiliated characters are positioned in a chintzy pictorial flotsam.
Having previously worked as a colour mixer for Dana Schutz, with airbrush and acrylic Juliano- Villani’s colour work is striking, painting scenarios, objects and characters that cite a wide pool of reference. Each is finalised through exhaustion, a zero point realised from filtering an encyclopaedic collection of influence. Born in Newark, her parents were also commercial printers, and seeing images reproduced over and over undoubtedly influences the repetition of motifs in her own work, as well as the incredible speed at which she produces. Appropriated images, the works of animator Ralph Bakshi, or reggae artist Wilfred Limonious, fan art, comics, animation, yearbooks, postcards, film, and personal photographs are all up for grabs. Everything, she says, is “fair game.”
Desire can’t be ignored, only endured, for when satisfied its attraction unravels. Images help maintain and structure this endurance. Yet, in The Right Time (2014), for example, green aliens consummate, or an egomaniac is completely self-involved. High windows show a steep rocky incline, the evening light scattering indigo shadows over the boulders. As though on some romantic getaway in sunnier climes, the aliens have indulged in a quart of Evan Williams bourbon. Two crimson speakers are extracted from Paul Caulfield, and an Italian neo-primitive chair from the 1980s rests in the backdrop. From the lampshade, pairs of golf balls collapse into the domestic space like an animation smear, Juliano-Villani classifies them as “the most obvious heteronormative identifier,” and in languid typeface the golf balls read: Pacemaker. As viewers, we can identify the references and tally the specific influencers who cast shadows in her work.
Images Juliano-Villani sources are projected straight onto canvas, or collaged in her own books that serve as precursors to the final composition. This masochistic longhand form of collage undermines the speed at which we consume images today. A process at once structural and impulsive leaves pain, wit and charm freewheeling without resolve. Like turning a spiral, her painting lends emergence. Feelings and references cave in. They are anxious and bristly, at times facile and larky. She clarifies them well in the tension of “arranged marriages”. Receptiveness and openness, her approach all blazon and bondage. Sprained jokes meet feral desires. Expression like a popped window or gagged plaything. Dislocation gives way to masochistic disorientation; an exploded blackout in a cave, or your fantasy left alone with you in a bedroom, in a limousine.
Throughout Western history, painting has been a medium dominated by heroes. The depiction, promotion and celebration of the powerful are features that unsettle Juliano-Villani. “I don’t even like painting in general and I never did,” she explains, “it has a pretence to it. I was literally doing it to actually be creative and express myself, it’s a way to articulate.” In painting extremities, Juliano-Villani’s work can lend relief, for some, even affirmation, for modes of representation can be confused with reality itself.
Considering the representational as a designation, characterisation or stand-in for reality that intimates a certain falseness, Juliano-Villani’s figures and creatures, fictional or otherwise, become placeholders that can fetter affinity. Zipperman (2014), for example, includes one of the Flying Monkeys from The Wiz (1978), a film which featured an entirely African-American cast, loosely adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Clad in black latex masks with bulbous goggles, ballooning leather suits that sink to mechanical piping, the Flying Monkeys are ergonomic parodies of the sadomasochistic suits loved by the likes of cult magazine, Atomage. Yet in Zipperman he hides, shadowed by a fir tree. As an aggressive figure who is also just a character, Juliano-Villani is, she explains, “drawn to a lot of things like that, that are like these double-edged swords. I was thinking about Tom of Finland as well, there’s this masochistic body to it. I’m actually painting it again.” The new canvas she shows me is a portrait of the Flying Monkey: the black goggles strapped to its leather mask in a state somewhere between a grimace and an enduring gnarl.
The 1970s illustrator Richard Corben is another influence where aliens become “very human and sentimental,” she tells me, “but they have like huge tits. It’s meant for comic book nerds, but somehow it gives them a kind of humanity, a tenderness. So I like that, I’ll keep using them.” As though resting behind a mask, isolated characters attract Juliano-Villani, or, they are emotionally liberated to bestow their savagery mercy.
Sadistic eroticism entertains violence upon the victim, informed or felt as a reflection of a higher form of violence to which the demonstration testifies. Similarly, Juliano-Villani’s figures and scenarios, much like animation, construe reality at a remove; they lend more obscene violence as a reaction to a larger, more real sufferance. Animation can amplify the discomfort of reality. In this way, many of Juliano-Villani’s figures become surrogates. The cartoon becomes prosthesis.
Oftentimes, the proxy is an animal. I ask her about this attention, in something like Apparition of Master (2015), which superimposes a dissolving dogs face above a bed, with fallow hounds watching at the edge in a bedroom lit with an ochre sunset. The apparition itself is a feature of Christian Ludwig Attersee, an Austrian artist whose Untitled (1971) dog sketch is singled out by Juliano-Villani for its postmodern attitude. “I don’t like painting people that much”, she tells me, “I use foxes, a lot of dogs, they induce sympathy for one reason even like an alien, it’s a placeholder, like the relationship to the creature is different. There’s a dominance, a sympathy and it’s cartoony – like a cartoon dog or a cartoon fox – you know, with cereal or candy and there’s this generic brand version, it’s like: I know what this is but I’m not quite sure.” As with the potential of a random error or glitch by chance, Juliano-Villani continues, “something’s uncomfortable about it but you can’t stop looking at it in a way. So I’m thinking about that, something slightly off or misspelled so it’s almost like a typo.”
Juliano-Villani is expert in magnetic discomfort. On her paintings, she explains, “it’s like a car accident, the colours are bright, the reason why I like anything that’s graphic, cartoons or animation, is what they do ethically, because they’re incredibly democratic and everyone has a relationship to TV.” With the tug of a kind of voyeurism, her paintings have the appeal that can cross not only car accidents, but also cats. By this, I mean a relation of stark observation.
Derrida was the father of Logos. Logos being the name of his cat, and Logos caught Derrida speechless: “Few things are more silently shameful,” the philosopher wrote, than “the impropriety of finding oneself naked, one’s sex exposed, stark-naked before a cat that looks at you without moving, just to see.” Double Dose (2014) stretches this sensation with perversion, a cat’s eyes pop out of its head, ogling at, we imagine, a customer disrobing in the adjacent room. Its eyes mimic the glitches in the game Assassin’s Creed, where features momentarily dislodge, or completely disappear, leaving only the bare essentials: eyes, teeth, hair.
Teddy bears are also recurring motifs, as with Blue Marina (2016) which collates a molecular chemistry model, a violin, and a fat, fluffy teddy within a child’s cot. It is a throwaway image. But the teddy’s origins bear influence, outlining the story Juliano-Villani says, “Teddy Roosevelt was supposed to shoot this bear for some publicity stunt, for a photo-shoot, but they staged it. They tied the bear up to the tree and in the photo made it look as though he hunted it, and that he shot it. But, he felt like it was a really fucked up way to do it, so he refused to kill the bear; that’s where the name came from: Teddy bear.”
Animals and bestiality are used by Juliano-Villani in a way that recalls the tactics of Drolleries. Otherwise known as a grotesque, drollery were used as decorative thumbnail images in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, most popular through the 15th century. Common drollery includes: mixed creatures, either between different animals, or between animals and human beings, or even between animals and plants or inorganic things. Think cocks with human heads, dogs carrying human masks, archers winding out of a fish’s mouth, bird-like dragons with an elephant’s head on the back.
Like investing something sinister with calm, or rendering the fakery of sweet appeals, teddies, dogs, and the Flying Monkeys float across the spectrum of Juliano-Villani’s crude transposals. E.T is another. When I tell her I saw the film maybe 12 years ago, she is stunned; eyes glaring to her desktop, she is adamant: “Watch it again.” The reasons why, along with how it attracts Juliano-Villani, make themselves evident. She tells me, “The person who played E.T. was actually a 10-year-old child actor who was born without legs, and that’s how he was an expert at walking on his hands. So he was in the suit the whole fucking time because he knew how to waddle. How dark is that?” Her attention shifts to the film’s production: “When they built the set for E.T. it was 10 feet above the ground so that none of the child actors saw E.T. out of costume, so the person would crawl up into the costume so the children thought he was real the whole movie.” Here her energy is enigmatic and infectious, pushing back in her wheeling chair, arms in the air, with an expression that dilates as though saying: done.
As with much of her research, Juliano-Villani’s relation to E.T. extends to, and is sutured by, material ephemera. However pixelated, she shares a book of letters and art written by fans to Steven Spielberg. It is an anomaly. She explains, “I’ve been thinking about E.T. a lot but from the perspective of the kid inside the costume, and what he saw as E.T. So I want to do a series of paintings on that. So you may just think that it’s dumb E.T. but through the lens of that actor it just seems like a whole other movie or a whole other story that’s never been acknowledged. So, I think that’s very sad and unique; I want to make some work about that. The movie is nothing compared to that.”
From extensive ephemera collated online and in back-end corners of bookshops, the paintings’ final compositions are best expressed through Juliano-Villani’s erratic note-taking. Her lists are extensive; with her stony New Jersey accent she reads a random set to me: “Genie dance corpse pillow. Kid drops candy apple. Live candy tea. Lifestyle derivative. Concrete Poetry. Baby fingerprints. 1955 Les Mans disaster. Christmas.” At times, kitsch tones are skewered by brassy violence, in others, impervious art historical motifs are undone by crass buffoonery.
When looking at Juliano-Villani’s paintings, there is the impression of noise. Careering shapes, busted action, snapped chords, ruptured energy, constant slippage and abrupt fractures generate sense that could accompany sonics – cranked organs, twanging harps, shivering violins. In this way, Juliano-Villani’s move to sculpture seems useful. Here, objects become relentless and toonlandish. There is the deadpan, Kerplunk-like end to 5-10 Min Walk (2016) where a hammer is bent to nail itself. Or, in Same Time Next Year (Part One) (2016), a 1955 Seeburg Jukebox burns with neon with a spoken transcription of her mother’s, even deeper, New Jersey accent. In this piece, she recorded her mother for months without her knowing, creating a selection of six tracks.
On the jukebox, she explains, “I was thinking about ASMR videos, they’re videos that will whisper and tap – it’s supposed to be some audible relaxation method, it’s like audible Reiki – but for me it really stresses me out, it’s like just fucking talk, you know. It gave me such anxiety that I thought we should use the jukebox that was like ASMR.” The piece is also connected to a painting exhibited at Studio Voltaire, where the jukebox is literally on trial. When a track is pressed that her mother speaks in, the sculpture flashes red, and the curtains open, like a serial drama. Over the canvas are two framed legal documents that show the conversations between Juliano-Villani and her mother fully transcribed, which lawyers, in both their respective countries, verified. “The idea was like this possession of this nostalgic object,” she continues, “but it’s the same name as my parent’s boat. We made a 10 minute commercial for them – those hip-hop things. But the 1950s doo-wop is just such a dark-minded thing, but it made the whole thing negate itself, becoming timeless in a way, or that they were at least invited to the wrong party.”
More so than her paintings, Juliano-Villani’s sculpture has a pervasive obstinacy. The attitude is thick and bovine. Both mediums, though, charge a freewheeling humour that is fraught by draining the gag, making it erupt, and burning every ash of what’s left. Leslie Nielson of the beloved Naked Gun, for example, is her guy. “He’s like a genius and one of my favourite actors,” she explains, “like dumb, dumb, comedy through the whole movie and it just doesn’t stop. I think it’s like thinking about him because the movies are just so stupid but they fucking work because he goes there with totally cheap-ball slapstick. I’m like that, so my paintings are like that.”
What, then, makes dumb humour turn sour? Given Juliano-Villani’s sensitive handling of all kinds of material, when is a composition too awful? “I always think about what’s the right level of stupid or what’s too on the pulse,” she explains, “I love when memes think about humour when making these things, too. You can’t do the lowest common denominator, doing a painting of just sex or whatever, it has to be the right kind of stupid, specific stupid.” She cites an example, the worst currently imaginable: Donald Trump. “Like someone said to me that I should paint Trump, like are you fucking kidding me? Like, how dumb am I? I was like fuck you no way. It’s like the most topical bullshit.” Garbage, it must be filtered.
I ask her about someone extremely streamlined in process, machinic, even, but beholden to consequences of a career become doltish: Jeff Koons. “Koons is a different thing, he’s about the most obvious, clickbait thing and he does it well. Put anything in an art fair with a mirror in it,” Juliano-Villani pantomimes: “SELFIES IN THE FUCKING REFLECTION. Fucking mirror in the fucking booth, you know.” If the fucking mirrors in the fucking booth epitomise a kind of airbrushed, art-world zenith, it is curious how Juliano-Villani’s work also tussles with the precisions inherent to tutelage.
Take the plastic recorder. Perhaps the worst symbol of primary school music lessons: a stick with holes in. It arises in Sirens (2016) with violent effect: rammed into the mouth of a swimmer with a caul over its face, when coming up for air. “The recorder is the cheapest, most annoying, most throwaway instrument, everyone learns in their early development in school, and it never comes into your adult life,” she explains. “Imagine those parents that get their kids back from music class with that fucking loud thing.” The caul, she continues, “is seen as a kind of premonition that the child is going to become a genius, or the baby will achieve great things. So the swimmer is coming out of the water with this caul on its face and the second the person grabs a breath they have to play this thing. It’s like a violent punishment in a way, but at the same time it’s also very stupid, like it’s very dumb looking.” Dumb and muffled it may be, but it’s a harsh leash, too.
Juliano-Villani takes kindly to amateur attempts that sincerely seek to become art. By this I mean, those who try hard to create exact replicas. Frank Sinatra is one example that has attracted Juliano-Villani: “with Frank Sinatra, first of all, they’re all really fucking good, they’re all minimal and he’d basically do like a Barnett Newman, or Yves Klein, or Jackson Pollock, and he woulddo copies of these master paintings.” For visual purposes, she continues: “it’s like his dumb brain looking at this thing and trying to make it look like art, or look like that. So it’s like a really simplified version of modernism done by one of the most well-known performers. What’s interesting is that he’s really trying, like they’re very earnest, you know. It’s such a weird scenario where it’s actually investigative, and I relate to that too because I look at work that I like and actually pull parts and put in my thing, you know, so we’re just sampling. Instead of me giving a lecture it’s like a chorus instead, it’s like one of those mash-ups on YouTube.” And with a brushed-off movement like a kind of twirl, quirk, or flickering charade, she mentions: “If no one knows what you’re doing, you can’t fuck it up.”
From Juliano-Villani’s art-historical, digital, and commercial references, her work thrusts the sense that we, too, navigate a tangle of perceptions, influences, and assumptions. While uniquely constituted by our own experiences, her work exhausts the violence and extremity of influence within this field of meaning in which we are forced to exist. Cumulatively, it lends relief, however dumb that sounds.