Jamian Juliano-Villani is a 29-year-old New Jersey-raised artist who paints and sculpts and performs absurdist theatre to packed crowds in parks. Her large scale paintings are garish, layered dreamscapes full of misplaced everyday images – things are ‘off’, cartoon heads are transposed onto female bodies, surreal gurning figures melt in front of kilns, airbrushed backdrops shine like catalogue cutouts. These paintings borrow from grand art history references and techniques but are firmly rooted the recognisable and prosaic, subverting the right and the normal so that the scene palpably hums with something wrong. The unsettling mash-ups are, Juliano-Villani says, completely intuitive and instinctive, offering no easy narrative for a viewer to follow because the story is entirely hers.
Juliano-Villani is tiny and fierce, like some sort of magical byproduct of a Kate Bush/Patti Smith/Rocky Balboa tryst and very funny, drawing heavily from her experience growing up both as a twin and as the daughter of a ‘controlling old-school Italian family’, who, surprisingly, let her give herself a middle name when she was seven. She chose Spike Lee. Juliano-Villani spoke to TFS from her New York studio, where her tumbling and weird ideas get played out and her paintings move from the magpie collection of things in her head onto the canvas.
You come from a slightly nuts Italian family, is that where we begin?
My parents and I had a really strained relationship for a while and we actually didn’t speak for a few years. As most strict Italian American parents from New Jersey tend to do, they thought they were just being protective, but it was controlling, amongst other things. I think the anxiety from growing up in that household translates into the impending doom type- feeling in a lot of my work. Somehow, miraculously, we get along now. I talk to them a few times a week; my mom always posts my stuff on her Facebook.
I have a twin, who is very, very different from me – pregnant, married, and has a house. Her name before she married was Julianna Bonnie Juliano-Villani – seriously, it’s like my parents lost a bet or something when they named her. I also have a little brother, Robbie, who is great and works in the family printing business. I just did a painting of this red Fresh Direct car, driving through Arlington National Cemetery, and the driver’s face is almost exploding. Robbie was in a serious car accident a few years ago and had to get facial reconstructive surgery. After the accident his brain was so filled with blood his head was the size of a watermelon and his eyelids were flipped inside out, so I was thinking of him when I made that painting.
Are you working on anything right now, or are you taking a break after producing work for your Studio Voltaire show?
I am usually in the studio everyday, but after the past three or four years, and with the last show, I’m exhausted. I am giving myself a year to work on one show, in NYC next year. For the London show I had four other paintings I brought with me and I just didn't finish them – I am so ADHD and manic that I always need to be working on something whether I will finish it or not. I probably make double the amount of paintings I eventually show and just toss half of them.
How much does the art market get in the way of the work?
Well, every time you go to an art fair and you see the money signs next to artwork…it can be strange. You don’t think, ‘Let’s make this painting huge because I need to make the rent’; instead you have an idea and make some art from it. Then somehow magically there is a price tag next to that. It can be all a little odd. I wouldn't pay big money for some of the stuff that’s out there (not like I could afford it anyway). At Frieze there were one or two good things, but I have been thinking about how much bad art there is (myself included). I do like to go and see what everyone else is doing, because all my friends are artists too.
You showed sculpture work at Studio Voltaire. Was the show a new focus for you?
I did sculptures in school, but they were terrible – I didn't know what I was doing. In the show there is a jukebox piece – my work is very American, so the jukebox feels questionable and cheesy and kitschy, but then it become this possessed item, where it is spouting dumb conversations with my mom. I look online at stuff constantly, and the jukebox is referencing ASMR [the electric tingle that runs down the back of your neck] , which is kind of like audio reiki. You know when you have an old person like your grandma touching your arm softly? I'm like ‘just grab it or don't touch it at all’. That in-between makes me uncomfortable and that’s why I was drawn to the idea of ASMR. The oldies in the jukebox were kept in, and hearing the Drifters alongside the paintings were so unsettling, coupled with my mom’s booming and inaudible New Jersey accent – everything was kind of thrown off its potential meaning. I also did a sculpture of a hammer nailing itself, as well as a wicker sculpture based off the chair stacking scene in Poltergeist, but specifically white wicker, with tennis balls on the bottoms of the legs. Obviously there is this pseudo-wasp reference and also a conscientious poltergeist who is concerned with the sound of chairs moving across the floor.
I also painted a self portrait in the show; I’m very self aware how incredibly played-out a self portrait is, a trope. It looks so stupid, but that’s why I am draw to it, because it transcends itself. I showed it to my friends and they were like ‘Why did you do that?’ There are so many dumb moments (when I say dumb, I mean it as a good thing) - I'm drawing with a stick with my feet, spelling out HELP. It is so ridiculous, what am I doing? And the work becomes questionable and I am so interested in that. If you look closely at the painting, you can see a live studio audience in the background behind me, as well as a boom mic. I was joking it looked like a scene from that 70’s Show, so why not own it? In reality, the background is a reference to video artist Bruce Charlesworth.
Your paintings are both beautiful and awful; you don’t want them in your living room, but they are so suggestive, you can’t look at them without trying to make links between everything. You are asking a lot of the viewer, but it is good to not know.
I like to keep things open. The thing I don't like about painting and art in general is the pretence that is involved, but at the same time you need to give people something to hold on to. If it is mediated by yourself somehow, like making the scale of a deer totally insane, it becomes surreal and suggestive of a Miro or an Arp painting. To me, everything makes sense. I also like not knowing why I made a decision, and by using all these different references from all these different places, it becomes way more complex and forced than if it was all just my shit. That would just be flat to me.
There’s an element of Dada influences in your work, right?
Yes! It’s not just absurd for absurdity's sake, but kind of defiantly something – defiantly questionable. The school I went to was kind of a homebase for Fluxus in the 70s. And the clothing line we showed in my collaborative group George de George at the Serpentine Pavilion this year is based on Dada absurdity. I am interested in art history too – so, while a lot of my work is random throwaway ephemera from the internet to old books and thrift store stuff, it is also rooted in art history.
Do you want to be able to explore other things than painting?
As an artist you want to be able to do whatever you want. I’m excited, I don't really know what I am doing. I'm making a sculpture right now with a long harmonica and I have been thinking about getting a vacuum cleaner the same width to play the harmonica. We have to get robotics people to help me make it. Figuring out other ways to do things is exciting and I am bracing myself for fucking up or embarrassing myself. I keep telling myself fucking up means you are trying.