New York

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Gone with the Wind, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 96".

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Gone with the Wind, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 96".

Jamian Juliano-Villani

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Gone with the Wind, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 96".

The act of opening a door seems stupidly simple, but that’s exactly why it’s particularly nerve-racking when you’re uncertain about how to do it. When anxiousness leads to overthinking, even the most straightforward things become complicated. This same anxiety could be found in Does This Slide or Do I Pull (all works 2018), where a frog sits on the second rung of a ladder, contemplating the titular question. In a zine produced for the occasion of the show, Jamian Juliano-Villani’s second at JTT, the work was captioned with a different title, After School, pointing to another anxious moment of transition, i.e., the months following graduation. In both cases, trepidation arises from having to cluelessly figure out the best way to proceed.

To see this and the other nine paintings on view in the exhibition, titled “Ten Pound Hand,” viewers had to pass through a custom-carpeted front space filled with graffitied canvases. The largest, tagged with the phrase TOYS CAN’T HANG, was mounted on a track that allowed it to function as a sliding door to the second gallery. When closed, it hid the next space from view, making the first appear to contain the entire show. (Some visitors were thrown off by the front room’s painting-cum-door, their hesitation a performance of the frog’s conundrum.) Juliano-Villani has described this purposefully questionable installation, If Balls Could Talk, as a strategy for making the real paintings look better by comparison. Actually, the works in the second space didn’t need this preludial joke, but the gesture’s superfluous nature spoke to a certain concern with perceptions and impressions that cropped up throughout the exhibition.

After receiving a BFA from Rutgers University in New Jersey in 2013, Juliano-Villani eschewed graduate school, opting instead to learn by working as a studio assistant to artists Erik Parker and Dana Schutz. YouTube and how-to painting books also proved useful teaching tools. Her adherence to a guild-like, autodidactic approach gave the young artist a chance to develop her work on her own terms, resulting in the acid-bright and often rude conglomerations of borrowed images for which she has become known. While often read as irreverent, the homemade clip art populating Juliano-Villani’s compositions has been selected with great care and an intense respect for her trade. Whether drawn from the work of Ralph Bakshi, from Shutterstock, or from a painting by an untrained Danish artist––the source of the odd creature in Bacon Boy––everything is specific and important.

The artist’s dedication to disrupting the impulse to rate what we see as good or bad, tasteful or tacky is on full display in Gone with the Wind. A firefighter stands before a burning California landscape. Hot pink and orange coalesce into the molten glow of airbrushed acrylic catastrophe. Everything is pretty grim, save for a small canvas literally inserted into the upper left corner. Tilted slightly to the right, it features a stylized image of a golden fish sucking down a bottle of Coca-Cola. The sky is blue; the waves are nice. The two images seem like clear opposites: one hot and apocalyptic, the other a picture of thirst-quenching positivity. The blurred neon airbrushing made me think of the personalized T-shirts that were au courant at bar and bat mitzvahs ca. 2003. It’s a quick way of working, allowing Juliano-Villani to paint the fire in three days. The fish required a month. Through these very differences, the images become similar. They carry the same weight.

The original image of the fire appears in the zine. Without the fish, it loses its impact, returning to its status as just another media image of destruction and disaster. The interruption makes the scene weird, anxious. The fish introduces a sense of foreboding that is amplified by the painting’s sparseness, a departure distinguishing these recent works from the artist’s usual high-density compositions. There’s something spooky about all this space, like the awful calm after a violent event. What to do, how to proceed in the wake of tragedy? When meaning is extinguished, comfort can sometimes be found in absurdity. Psychedelics have shown promise in treating trauma, offering a way to process psychic pain. Something similar seems to be at work in Juliano-Villani’s bizarre, darkly humorous paintings. Each is a different trip, an altered state working on finding a way forward.

––Lina Kavaliunas