I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“I’m not trying to make post-Internet paintings. What the fuck is post-Internet? It’s life.”
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Jamian Juliano-Villani does not paint a nice picture; there’s something haunting and dark to her work that I can’t pinpoint. Vulnerability, trauma, and humor are all on display. At her 2015 exhibition Crypod at JTT, her paintings’ punchy and unresolved narratives left me hanging. Unable to grasp the whole story, what I was able to grasp seemed fucked.
A few months ago Juliano-Villani and I sat down in her studio and had a conversation. We discussed how nice paintings are formulaic—caught up in skill, craft, and technique. Hers are a mix of emotion and intuition. She makes decisions necessary to her narratives, which are like a series of childhood nightmares.
Samuel Jablon Talk to me about how you start a painting.
Jamian Juliano-Villani It’s really intuitive. Basically I’ll compile a shitload of images, look at them all, and then start—normally with the background, then just wing it as I go. I’ll usually start coming up with a narrative or an idea of one thing that reflects off the other thing. Sometimes I’ll do a sketch or a collage or something, and I’ll start working with that dialogue to keep it open. I tried to put a painting together in Photoshop once and was like, Why the fuck am I painting this? It was so boring. All this weird shit that happens as I make something, kind of figuring it out on my canvas. It’s why they look really painted; there are no under drawings. It’s literally paint on there. But also sometimes… Here, I’ll pull it out—I have a list of ideas. Here’s one: The original robots using a ScanTron. Like the SATs, you know, so alien. These ideas don’t really make sense:
Bindi light switch
Cheerios as an alarm system
Saint Bernard in a hermit crab trap, drowned
Point-of-view bagpipes, POV of bagpipes
Saddle on a tub
High chair in a cornfield illuminated by cop lights
Toothpaste on a tennis court
The first Dr. Seuss hat that’s 200 years old
So it usually stems from this shit, then I just start fucking with it.
SJ It stems from this?
JJV Yeah. In awful, fucked up ways. I need this, otherwise a piece can go so far in one direction and then I lose the whole point of the painting. I’m so ADD and anxious that I could just go way too far.
SJ So, would these ideas be for one painting or several?
JJV Like 15 paintings. It’s about finding the right references for all these things, the right high chair. It can’t be a nice, mid-century high chair, but it has to be shit, a tall high chair—like a normal one, a cheap one. Or like the saddle; it can’t be too twee or too fetish-y. It’s like researching what kind of bathroom I want: What color should the bathroom be? I’ll get Pantone cards, or I’ll look at a couple of books, or I’ll use a palate generator and pick out the colors there. And then—ugh, it’s so dumb, since I’m really bad at Photoshop—if I want to put something in, I literally take a photo of it and tape it on the fucking painting. Then I project the photo of the thing taped to the fucking thing. It’s the dumbest way to work.
SJ So none of these are pre-planned?
JJV No. I’ll have an idea and that’s it.
SJ I like how you start from that intuitive sense.
JJV It has to be like that. They are all so different anyway. That’s the thing that keeps me into painting; it looks totally fucking schizophrenic.
SJ I feel like that is a big part of painting—needing to be intuitive.
JJV That’s one of the things that you have, you know. I tape it up. It’s so dumb because I don’t want to deal with perspective in Photoshop. And it looks weirder that way.
SJ I don’t think that’s dumb.
JJV Well, it’s a little dumb, but it works.
SJ Can you talk about your cartoon choices, the characters?
JJV I’m really specific about the ones I use. It’s just so easy to take those things, run with them, and not think about their ethical symbolism. I actually don’t like cartoons for my own pleasure, but I like that they communicate in a really populist sense. I feel like there is something really questionable about them. But they are effective, so fuck it. There’s a realm of fantasy, too. You can do things in cartoons and comics that you can’t in real life, like that movie Team America, with the puppets. They couldn’t do that movie with fucking people, but it’s puppets fucking so it’s fine. But I’m really particular about the ones that I do use. There are certain illustrators and animators and comic books artists that I keep going back to, like Mort Drucker. He just has a hand that no one else can mimic. Or Ralph Bakshi, Richard Corbin, Wilfred Limonious. These are people that I’m ethically interested in. They do things for the right reasons, and I feel like they slip through the cracks. Not only could they be re-contextualized, but there is also such bright shit there. Like, I love Spirou comics, like Moebius. Obviously, these are really basic examples. Mort Drucker actually sent me a drawing as a thank you, because he really likes the work and gets what I’m doing. It’s almost fan art. Art can transcend into weird fan fiction, you know what I mean?
SJ Your paintings as fan fiction?
JJV Like, say, I’m starting out with this Wilfred Limonious image, which is an album cover from a Sugar Minott album—the back of it. I love that he uses bits of his own stuff in other paintings, so I started fucking with a collage from one of my favorite album covers, which is so reductive and high school, but then hopefully it will turn into this weird Futurist-moving-glitch thing. That’s why it’s like weird fan art. It’s shit that I like.
SJ I like how your work brings in cartoons, but puts them in this—
JJV —weird space?
SJ Weird space that’s… sort of fucked up.
JJV It doesn’t make sense.
SJ And you feel like something awful is about to happen.
JJV Totally. It’s funny because where these paintings come from is that I have PTSD.
JJV So I have a massive problem with sleeping. I can’t sleep. I usually stay up every other night, and instead of sleeping I’ll be painting. I think that’s why they all feel very dark. I didn’t realize until recently that they are all very dark paintings.
SJ They are on the darker side, but I wouldn’t say they’re completely—
JJV They aren’t like freak nightmare?
SJ No, they aren’t at all.
JJV I want to do things where it’s like the weirder the better.
SJ They are challenging.
JJV Yeah, they’re ugly as fuck, too! I don’t like them.
SJ Yeah, but that’s what kind of makes them interesting and challenging.
JJV Like car accidents.
SJ They aren’t necessarily—
SJ Yeah, you aren’t trying to make a nice painting.
JJV Fuck that, no. Like I would never put this in my house ever.
JJV It would make the whole room look cheap. That’s the thing, too. I never really like them, but I don’t think you should like your work because, if you do, you aren’t pushing enough.
SJ I completely agree with that.
JJV If you are liking it, just fucking start over. That’s just how I think about my work. If I like it, then something is too settled there. Also, the way I look at every piece of the painting—I kind of view them all as the same thing. I’m not like making decisions based on just aesthetics. Like this is the teddy bear I want to use for this painting, and I’m just going to paint it like this. There is no separation between things. That is where it’s funny, because everyone talks about my work in terms of the Internet and the way we look at Instagram, and I was like, “No, that’s not how my brain works. It has nothing to do with the fucking Internet.” I use it as a tool, but I’m not trying to make post-Internet paintings. What the fuck is post-Internet? It’s life.
SJ I feel like these relate a lot to Jim Nutt.
SJ I wouldn’t call that post-Internet art.
JJV No, not at all.
SJ People have to seem to forgotten the Imagists, and there’s all this stuff—
JJV Look at fucking [Victor] Vasarely.
SJ There’s tons of it.
JJV Those things work because they are democratic, because they work in an optical sense. Someone like Jim Nutt—it’s totally surreal, but it works because there are all these graphic black lines around it, so you know what you are looking at. There is a place to enter the work.
JJV Maybe because it’s figurative or somewhat representational. With me, too, I only know a couple of ways to paint. This is so stupid, but I was talking to a friend the other day about making work, making a painting, and I was trying to think about, when you eating something, your tongue is a grid with all these different sections: salty, sweet, savory, bitter, whatever. If the painting has all of those elements, it’s like a well-rounded thing.
JJV It’s one way to think about it.
SJ That’s funny. Yes, totally.
JJV Did I hit all the points? I don’t want these to be fucking decorative ever. These two paintings of a leg, like, cutting across the room—who cares, does that need to be a fucking painting? Is that saying anything at all? Other than that it looks nice. I could make a nice painting. I’m making one for my bathroom right now. The shit you don’t like you put in your bathroom because it gets fucked up with the steam. So I’m just trying to make something that would look nice in the bathroom, and it’s not something I would ever show anyone. It’s boring. It’s two colors and decorative; it’s two bats. I’m just going to hang them upside down. Fuck it. It’s a totally different thing. But these are difficult paintings.
SJ They need a lot of time.
JJV They do.
SJ The more you look at them the more is going on.
JJV That’s the thing, too. I have to learn how to edit a little better when I’m making them because, if I just keep going, then I can blow these things into forever.
SJ So, what is the content?
JJV Let’s say there’s teddy bear sitting in a carseat and the house outside is sold. He’s moving, clearly, or got evicted, whatever. But something else needs to happen; it’s not enough. For me, it’s like, Why is he dead behind the eyes? Maybe he’s having an allergic reaction, maybe he has an epi-pen dangling from his fur. Something that breaks it up and makes it a little more psychological as opposed to just a cool image—because that’s not enough. Something that throws the whole fucking thing off. I’m doing another painting in this room that’s nice, but that’s it, so far. It’s a painting of a painting, which is, ugh, awful. But you know, what the fuck is the thing that’s actually ripping the painting? Is it lying on the floor and using a stick to rip it? Matisse would be in bed with the thing. I have to figure out what it is. Is it just a head, is it one single cornstalk growing into the fucking thing? I don’t know. They do take time because those kinds of weird decisions need to burrow for a little bit. Then, usually, it’s the first thing I think of off the top of my head. The painting part is not the hard part, it’s the fucking decision making. These can go cheesy so fast.
SJ Yeah, they are right on the line.
JJV The line is like a papercut.
SJ A tightrope.
JJV Yeah. Sometimes I’m like: Fuck it, let’s really push it. I was trying to think of things the other day to paint that would be the hardest to get away with. I did this one alien fox scene, but it actually ended up being a really beautiful painting because it was Ganesh, a narcissist fucking himself—which was a romantic, poetic moment—and these two aliens fucking on the floor.
JJV But what could be really difficult to get away with? A painting of pizza is awful, but how could I get away with it. I think I have it figured out though. Basically I’m going to do these boxing gloves, which are all scarred up with shit all over them. Maybe I’m trying to toss a big piece of pizza dough, I don’t know. I may have something from my disaster book embedded into the dough. If I could pull that off, that would be great. Animals, kittens—you can’t do that shit anymore. Like the worst shit you can possibly imagine, and I’m trying to find a way to subvert that and make it okay. The idea of a fucking awful self-portrait. If I could take the art school self-portrait and have it transcend whatever fucking weird corner of hell that thing is in, then I would be excited. So, thinking like that is at least entertaining to me. It’s fun. You have to push through so many shitty ideas first to get to a good one.
SJ Totally, yeah.
JJV I’ll show you the painting that I’m still struggling with and really sucks right now.
SJ What makes it awful for you?
JJV There’s nothing gone wrong yet. It’s like filler. Or do I just fuck with the filler and make it really insane? Does he have a VIP pass? Is he an EMT? Like what the fuck, what is happening? It just can’t be dynamic; it’s too cute, or too nice, soft.
SJ (laughter) It needs to be punchy. It needs to be darker.
JJV Yeah, because his eyes…
SJ Yeah, his eyes are dead.
JJV Yeah, little beads. This needs something. Maybe it looks like he’s jumping around.
SJ Leg braces?
JJV Oh yeah, leg braces. What if it’s a tampon string? You come up with these dirty fucking awful ideas before you figure it out. So tampon string, laser pointer, and a VIP card are not going to work for this shit. It should be something more subtle and a little bit more complex. Then I can make these jokes so easily, and it’s so fun to think about it and laugh about it. I can’t actually feel good enough on this; I put in like 50 hours on this thing already, so I can’t just fuck it up. Also, for me, they are more performative than they are the end result. All these ideas and stress, and I’m like maniacally working here for two days straight, then this shit just looks the way it fucking looks. So it’s all the decisions made in the stress of it.
SJ Your process.
JJV I hate talking about process because if you take a shit, do you have a process? Does anyone fucking care?
JJV At the end, you are just looking at a thing that someone made.
SJ That’s what you present to the world.
JJV It just seems so self-indulgent to think about how it’s made. I mean, maybe other artists care. I just don’t really care about someone’s process unless it’s really insane, or more interesting than just painting.
SJ I don’t think it’s necessary to know how someone got to a certain point. It’s just what are they showing and what are they saying.
JJV For these, process is—it’s funny, I’m negating myself now—really important. I was just saying it was bullshit. I was thinking about process-based abstraction, so I guess I’m just being an asshole now. In terms of abstraction, it just infuriates me so much. In context, back then, it was really incredible. But now, it’s not adding anything new to the conversation.
SJ The thing I like about your work is that there is always this horrifying level to it that isn’t so hard to swallow.
JJV I’m also not trying to make really bad, fucked up paintings. They just end up looking however the fuck they look, and that’s it. Sometimes I’ll be painting something and I’m like, What am I doing? Why did I put that there? Like the Dr. Seuss hat that is 10 feet tall. Sometimes it’s like, Fuck taste, fuck what you actually like, fuck the way things look, and just do it. Sometimes it’s about the energy and ideas.
SJ No, this is not good taste.
JJV No. But fuck taste. Taste should have nothing to do with it. It’s funny, the kind of work I like as art looks nothing like mine. I think it has similar attitudes, but I love Mike Kelley, obviously.
SJ But he’s also really embarrassing.
JJV And vulnerable.
SJ But there’s something vulnerable about your work. I think you were talking earlier about PTSD. There seems to be this theme about cartoons and trauma, and how cartoons are representing trauma in your work.
JJV I had a really fucked up childhood, too. That’s another reason why I use that. The reason Mike Kelly’s work is so effective is because it deals with trauma whether you like it or not. Everybody has a relationship to it. Comics and cartoons also do the same thing.
SJ You’re confronted with this image. A sold sign and some dead eyes.
JJV And a fucking tool box.
SJ A coffee cup and an apple.
JJV His belt should be undone. That’d be disgusting.
SJ That would be disgusting.
JJV I was in the mall once when I was like 16, and I was eating Panda Express with my sister, like shit lo mein, and we looked over and there was this dude jerking off under his table at the food court. He had a Velcro flap, so he could just whip his dick out whenever. I think this teddy bear should have that.
SJ And then it really stops with this horrifying thing.
JJV Then should the fucking pink slip be beneath him, like neighborhood watch?
SJ He just got run out of town.
JJV So it’s not just like, “Let’s put a fucking a heroin needle on the teddy bear.” Usually it will be some personal thing that will make its way in. And then it becomes mine instead of just this amalgamation of images. It’s the last moment when the painting becomes really personal.
SJ It seems like you just need to get this stuff out.
JJV I’ll explode otherwise. I can’t even work fast enough.
Samuel Jablon is an artist based in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee