For Jamian Juliano-Villani, the 29-year-old painter from New Jersey whose cartoon-cribbing compositions have graced gallery shows since before her graduation from Rutgers in 2013, widespread recognition is proving to be a double-edged sword.
On one hand, her work has been included in shows at institutions like MoMA PS1’s Greater New York and SculptureCenter (with more coming soon at the Hammer Museum, the Swiss Institute, and the Whitney), gaining the young artist a loyal following of curators and collectors along the way. On the other hand, working to fill these shows with her charming, confounding paintings is no easy task, requiring many sleepless nights in front of her projector (she shines found images onto canvas before painting, improvising and adding as she goes along).
On a more personal level, her insistence on understanding the history of her cartooned sources means that she constantly labors to avoid throwaway references, even as her self-described “populist” leanings compel her to make instantly appreciable images—no art history homework required. As she says in her typically straightforward parlance, “It’s tough shit.”
Indeed, when Artspace’s Dylan Kerr dropped by her Brooklyn studio for a visit, Juliano-Villani was in the midst of putting the finishing touches on works for an upcoming group show at Zurich’s Galerie Eva Presenhuber and readily admitted it had been a while since she’d last slept, a state of affairs she says is not at all unusual. As she reveals in this freewheeling interview, her at-all-costs dedication to her craft is matched only by her abrasive attitude towards the rampant pretentiousness of the art world—a combination that makes Juliano-Villani a particularly instructive example of how to succeed in art without succumbing to its absurdity.
What’s your background? How do you find yourself in the strange position of being a professional artist?
I grew up in New Jersey, and my parents are commercial printers. Being around all of their silkscreen shit, I didn’t want to do art. They don’t really “do art,” I guess—more like crappy Playboy swag and oversized Superbowl t-shirts.
In high school I was really into music and started working for the Brooklyn Rail. It sounds so dorky and everyone has this reason, but it was really just looking at shitloads of album covers that got me into art. I went to art school for painting but did mainly sculpture and installation, so I didn’t really learn how to paint—I still don't really know how to paint [laughs].
How did you settle on this very specific mode of painting?
I started making these kinds of paintings in my room after college. There’s something about looking at art and seeing shit that you’ve seen a million times and wanting to make something that you want to see, which is what this really started as. It’s dorky, but when I started I was basically making my own posters. I didn’t think anybody was ever going to see them, so I didn’t give a shit what they were. It was essentially just fan art—I painted things I liked and put them all together, to be really reductive.
Why did you decide to base your process on appropriating or otherwise working with other people’s images?
The thing I hate about painting is that everyone thinks they have this unique vision, and they usually don’t. It just seems really masturbatory, so that’s why I like using references, besides the fact that it was just shit that I liked. Painting in general is kind of lame—I always feel lame about being a painter.
Why is that?
It’s cheesy! Everyone’s a painter, but it’s really insular too. Whenever I do a show I feel weird, because it’s just boring paintings in a room—that’s all I’m really responsible for, whereas someone like Ajay [Kurian] does a bunch of different stuff. They can exercise their brain in other ways. I’m always playing with these cheesy pictures.
Can you see yourself doing work that isn’t painting?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’m still learning how to paint, so I’m going to wait, but if I find something that makes sense that I’m interested in I’ll definitely do it. For now, I’m trying to figure out what the fuck these things are.
How do you choose the subject matter for your pieces?
It depends. It can start from one image, or from one of these lists of stupid ideas I write down, or from a dream, or a conversation I had with a friend. They all come from my personality and experience. They’re usually pretty depressive or dark, probably because my childhood was difficult. I think that’s also why I have a sense of humor about these things.
Does it usually start with language, like your lists?
It depends on the kind of mood I’m in. If I’m stressed out, I’ll just start painting random shit and build content from there. That’s usually when I think they end up being a little weaker, when I’m drawn to the way something looks rather than what it is. At that point it’s like, “Great, now I have a big fucking problem I have to solve.” It’s really 50/50. It takes a lot more time to find things based on ideas, and lately I haven’t had any time. After this [refers to the painting she’s working on] I’ll be able to breathe with these things and come back to them.
Once you have your starting image or idea, is it an additive process from there as you decide what looks good together?
Totally. If I planned these I would seriously save so much time. As it is now, I’ll paint the whole thing and then decide I want to fuck with the background—I’ll paint over stuff that I hand-rendered, shit like that. I prefer that though, because what’s the point of doing this in Photoshop? I’m painting here.
You mentioned that you think about borrowing from other people as a kind of fan-like appreciation or homage. How so?
It depends on what it is. If it’s an animation or comic it definitely is a kind of homage, but if it’s a stock image it’s probably not. When I do reference those kinds of cartoons, I’m very particular about the ones I use.
What are your criteria?
Never Disney. He’s like the Hitler of animation. Ethically it sucks, and I’m not interested in anything that they’re trying to do. It’s not really dynamic. I’ll use people like Ralph Bakshi or Richard Corben because I like their ethics and images, and also because they have big balls. I really like Mort Drucker, who does caricatures for MAD and Cracked and has a very particular hand that I love. The way he draws is such an anomaly.
I have to be particular about these things, because I feel like a lot of people use that stuff without even knowing where it’s coming from. I think using those images without knowing your shit is just rape—it’s raping the integrity of these things, just using them as a style. There’s so much more to comics and cartoons and animation than that, and it’s frustrating because nobody even knows what the fuck they’re referencing.
In other interviews you’ve come out as a staunch defender of appropriation as a gesture—in your mind, is it possible to be a “bad appropriator?”
Yeah, by claiming authorship. I never said these things are mine—I can’t, because they’re not. It is really tricky, though. I hate Luc Tuymans’s paintings, but it blew my mind when he lost that case. It was painted! I mean, who doesn’t paint from a picture? It’s a retrograde conversation.
The only time it becomes a problem is when someone’s ego gets involved, I think. I had to deal with that in the past [Juliano-Villani was publicly accused of plagiarizing a mural by Scott Teplin, which was itself an update on an earlier wall painting from the 1970s]. It was really stressful and infuriating, because it was a public mural of a John Lennon lyric with a Miró drawn underneath it that was painted in the ‘70s. I was like, “If this is about permission, that’s bullshit.” I empathize because he’s a comics guy, but it’s still like, “Come on, man. You’re not looking at Steve Ditko?”
Other than your signature cartoon imagery, you also make some select art historical references. How do those fit into your approach?
I love people like Patrick Caulfield or George Ault, so I’ll use their shit as a poster or background for my stuff. In those cases they’ll probably be mentioned in the painting’s title somewhere, but for me it doesn’t really matter if you know them or not—that’s the insular part of painting that I can’t stand. It’s really just shit that I like—I don’t reference things that I don’t actually like, because then it becomes some shitty parody that I’m not interested in doing.
Do you care if people know where you’re pulling this imagery from?
No. That would be ridiculous, like, “Read this packet and come back to me.” I think of the references more like Easter Eggs in video games, an added bonus if you get them. If you don’t, it’s totally fine, because hopefully the painting will still do its job.
Do you see your paintings as countering art world insularity by taking up what you’ve called the “populist” imagery of cartoons?
That wasn’t something I was thinking about when I started, but now I kind of have to. I’m definitely interested in making populist images, but I don’t want to be painting Mickey Mouse and shit.
How would you define a populist image?
TV, I guess. Or something that everyone has a relationship to. Comics and cartoons do that, the news does that, album sleeves do that. It can really be anything, as long as it hits those chords.
It can be subtler than some bullshit cartoon, too. That’s the thing—I always talk about cartoons, but I don’t really like them that much. I just like what they do, and that’s a huge difference. I’m not at home reading fucking Bill Ward. I’m looking at it and I respect it, but it’s not like I’m a comic book dork.
It sounds like you like them more for the position they occupy in our visual culture.
Yeah. They’re really democratic, and that’s something I’m into. Seeing the reproduction of images in my parents factory probably had something to do with it.
In reading other interviews you’ve done, one of your most salient qualities is a kind of anti-elitist scorn for the pretentions of the art world. Where does that oppositional stance come from?
Not going to grad school. I know a lot of people who went to grad school who just expect shit, or just get hooked up by teachers. That doesn’t mean shit! It doesn’t make sense to me to go to school for art. Isn’t painting supposed to be emotive? Why do you have read this fucking packet on provincial painting?
I don’t know. I read too, and there are formalities and academic shit involved in painting, but who fucking cares? We’re out of school and we don’t have to talk like that now. We’ve proved ourselves. It’s like, I know you have a dick—chill out.
Do you see this stance as something that’s coming primarily from male artists?
No, I think women are just as bad. It pisses me off when people are like, “Ugh, dude painters.” It’s like, shut the fuck up. Everyone sucks.
A recurring issue with your work is your use of stereotypically voluptuous women. How do you think about those female figures?
When I paint a person, I want it to look like a person. When I think about a woman, I think about tits and ass. People look at paintings for fucking two seconds. If I’m going to paint a woman, I’m going to paint an idealized, American version so that you can recognize it as a woman.
Is there a critique implicit in that choice?
There’s no real critique. I really don’t consider gender when I’m making work, because who fucking cares? That kind of identity politics in painting polarizes people and limits who’s able to enter the work, and I don’t like that.
There are a lot of contemporary artists and critics who would probably take exception to that idea.
Which is bullshit. It’s just fucking art. I mean, it’s not just art, but I think people get really oversensitive, and that bothers me.
Do you think the current discussions around how art can be political or used to express different identities are here to stay?
I think it’s wishful thinking, imagining that art can be political. You can’t be an artist and want to have a conversation about Marxism. Shut the fuck up! It’s about being aware that we’re all participating in this big system that is essentially a rip-off. It’s like someone’s paying to read your diary—it’s insane, although maybe I’m just being cynical because I’m cranky as shit [laughs].
I just don’t know how political it can be when you’re living in New York and painting is your main job. You could have different intentions, but at the same time it seems like if you really want to communicate those things, art is probably not the best vehicle to do so. Be a politician, or a volunteer, or an activist. I feel like it’s kind of stupid to try to claim that your art is political.
Are you familiar with the Icelandic painter Erró? I ask because his process of appropriating comics and cartoons and projecting them onto canvas to paint is very similar to yours, but also because of his ideas about Narrative Figuration, where the use of these recognizable images is used to tell a story or relay a political message. Is there any of that kind of narrative in your paintings?
This is my opportunity to name drop—Hans Ulrich Obrist actually gave me Erró’s book and told me I would love it, which I totally did.
There aren’t really narratives in my paintings, more like really stupid descriptions of what they were going to be. Like this one [points to a freshly made canvas] was supposed to be a cat riding a scooter through town. It can’t just be crazy juxtapositions though, because that would suck. For me, the interesting part is figuring it out the hard way, not planning anything and just responding to the painting as you paint, because that’s when the good shit happens.
You’re in the mixed-blessing situation of being a “hot” or “buzzed-about” artist. How are you handling that kind of attention?
I’m not! Look at me—this sucks! I need a break. I also know I’m really lucky, so that’s why I work like this. I usually stay up every other day—I have to if I’m trying to work. It’s tough shit, but I know it’s going to last another two years before this cartoon bullshit ends, and I’ll be fucked. Then it will be five years before I get a group show, and I’m totally OK with that. I’ve worked for enough artists to know that this shit comes in waves and that you’re supposed to fuck up—you’re allowed to fuck up. The thing is, I just don’t like fucking up. I haven’t really had a break in three years.
How do you deal with that schedule on a physical level? How are you still operating?
It’s not sustainable, that’s for sure. I like it though, and I just don’t know what else to do. I’m really restless, so I’m used to it. Plus, no one’s up so I’m less distracted, and I get a lot of shit done. I do get really lonely because I’m in here for hours on end by myself, so that’s the only time I’m like “fuck this.” Besides that, shit’s great.
Do you feel under a lot of pressure to keep up your productivity?
Yes. I mean, it’s been like this since my first show, which is really fucking crazy, but it could be worse. I could have nothing going on. The reason why I’m doing all this is because I do bust my ass, so I guess I’m asking for it.
Is that a value for you, the idea that you owe it to yourself to work hard now because you find yourself in this lucky position?
Yeah, but I’m like this no matter what, deadlines or not. I’m always in here working like a motherfucker. I just have to paint. I’ll make a million shitty paintings even if I don’t have a show, because I just need to. This is the only thing that actually makes me feel good. Everything else is just extra shit. It’s probably because I have a hard time articulating how I feel—these can do it for me.