First Look: Jamian Juliano-Villani

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Two disembodied cartoon eyes, bloodshot and bulging, float in the center of Mixed Up Moods (2014), a characteristically overstuffed painting by Jamian Juliano-Villani. The eyes could have popped out of one of two sources: the porcelain-skinned face of the femme fatale depicted on the left, or the fetishlike stone sculpture on the right, which is riddled with nails and has two holes where eye sockets could be. Rounding out the scene is a tabletop strewn with a strangely phallic teakettle, a stack of papers with black brushstrokes standing in for text, a pair of skeleton hands and an ashtray brimming with lit cigarettes.

Though it may not be obvious, Juliano-Villani is an artist who prizes legibility. The boldly rendered forms in her paintings are easy to decipher, and the images she employs evoke a familiar world of cartoons and commercial graphics. Yet the sheer accumulation of pictorial information in her paintings suggests complexity and invites interpretation. During a visit to her Brooklyn studio, Juliano-Villani told me that she often approaches a canvas withâ?¨a “hyper-specific” concept in mind and then builds compositions from found images that can express her own attitudes.

Some of the images Juliano-Villani uses are taken directly from sources such as, notably, the work of cartoonists R. Crumb and Ralph Bakshi. Yet her approach to appropriation and reproduction departs in important respects from the Pop art tradition of Warhol and Rosenquist. For one thing, Crumb’s erotic drawings and Bakshi’s unsparing depictions of American race relations were never quite “popular” in the same way as, say, Marilyn Monroe’s films. Juliano-Villani may share stronger affinities with the Chicago Imagists and Robert Williams, artists whose affiliations with underground subcultures persisted with or without attention from the mainstream art world.

Juliano-Villani, who skipped grad school, professes a calculated distance from what she perceives to be overly insular modes of contemporary abstract painting. Rather than as a medium stuck in an endless loop of self-reference, Juliano-Villani views painting as a tool for making connections across cultures and historical eras. Postwar Japanese graphic design is a recurrent touchstone, as is album art from the 1980s and ’90s. One of her most ambitious works is Some Deaths Take Forever (2014), a large-scale triptych featuring a chainmail-clad fist holding a snuffed-out red candle. The image comes from the cover of a 1980 album by the electronic musician Bernard Szajner, produced in support of an Amnesty International campaign against capital punishment. Each panel of Juliano-Villani’s work has the same dimensions as the floors of the solitary confinement cells once used at Alcatraz. The monumental scale of the work therefore points to the tortuously diminutive spaces of incarceration.