Julia Wachtel

Julia Wachtel on visual pleasure and the dumb image

Julia Wachtel, Fulfillment, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 50 x 101". Installation view. Photo: Etienne Frossard.

Since the late 1970s, Julia Wachtel has sifted through the dregs of the image world. From greeting cards and magazines to the plenum of digital imagery online, Wachtel silkscreens her source materials onto canvases alongside painted panels to construct her rhythmic montages. Her paintings—sardonic, boisterous, biting—will soon be on view in two solo exhibitions: “Believing” runs from April 27 to June 4 at Super Dakota in Brussels; “Fulfillment” opens on April 16 and will be the first show at Helena Anrather’s new, Büro Koray Duman–designed space on the Bowery in New York City.

WHEN I FIRST STARTED APPROPRIATING IMAGES, the digital world didn’t exist. I limited my search to a few sources: magazines such as People and Der Spiegel, as well as greeting cards. Now with the internet, there’s immediate access to an uncountable number of pictures. So, in that respect, my work has become more complex. Easier and more challenging in equal measure. I think of myself as an editor. The compositional process within a given painting is a form of editing, but obviously I’m also editing down from the potential field of all the images available. It’s a bit daunting to commit to one out of the field of endless possibilities. But in a sense I don’t think it’s any different than any choice an artist makes. It’s always a commitment, whether to a line, a color, or to an image. Once I’ve decided, my approach is to use the simplest, dumbest techniques in the manipulation of the source material and the composition of the painting. Obviously, the editing tools I use when composing the work, such as Photoshop and InDesign, are tremendously powerful. It’s very easy to get caught up in the design-y effects that are so readily at hand. But I try to be very disciplined, resisting those programs’ more sophisticated functions; I want to be as basic as possible, almost like I’m a cave painter using modern technologies.

I want to situate my viewer in a space of extreme familiarity, but one that’s estranged from the original context. For one of the panels in the painting Fulfillment, 2021, I horizontally flipped a printed sign from an Amazon fulfillment center that has the Amazon logo of an arrow below the word fulfillment. That panel sits next to another one that has the same graphic but in the proper orientation, joining the arrows together, Rorschach-like, into a smile. To the right is another panel with a cartoon of a happy reindeer whose simple, linear smile mimics the mashed-up Amazon one. The flipping of the image also jams up the word “fulfillment,” disorienting it into an illegible sequence of letters. My intention in using a simple device like flipping is to generate multiple readings. There’s an emotional resonance to that kind of gesture. Utilizing very cloying, almost embarrassing content was a way for me—initially, back in the ’80s—to admit my own complicity in the world of images. I wanted to flag the fallacious idea that we can ever stand entirely, objectively outside of culture. Humor also works to disarm the viewer, hopefully creating a sense of identification with the images in question and a more direct connection with the painting. Currently I’m focused on imagery that celebrates the aesthetics of abundance, consumption, and pleasure—that shimmery surface undergirded by a reality of instability and inequity. Through my manipulation of these kinds of pictures, pairing them with cartoons that function as witnesses, I’m trying to maintain a tension between the glossy facade and the psychological fissures that disrupt it.

Throughout my work, I investigate the construction of emotion and identity through the mechanisms of mass culture. From an economic point of view, I can’t compete with the corporate production of images, but it’s important to me to greet the viewer with an immediately engaging and pleasurable experience, almost like a musical hook in a pop song. I want there to be something for viewers to quickly connect to, but then for the realization to hit that maybe things aren’t as sweet and benign as they first appear. That’s all I can really do: put a question mark in people’s minds, suggest that these pictures work in very nefarious ways. Obviously, I have love for the imagery, but I also understand the cost of it all.