“Being conscious of fucking up assassinates creativity,” declares Jamian Juliano-Villani, a powerful force who charges into unknown territory. Her painting process is maniacal, she’s hungry for data, voraciously reading, watching and absorbing stimulation, then filtering it through her mind and hand and into dynamic paintings that provoke weird feelings and intriguing confusion. Backed by the bright light of a projector, she beams countless layers of imagery onto the canvas to render a storified collage of information. Through an obsessive absorption of visual culture, she has gained an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure, provocative facts that inform her work—her own world of fiction inspired by truth. Her work is unusual, her place in our future history is already carved out, and she’s about to get crunk.
Kristin Farr: What are some fascinating facts you’ve learned or obsessed about in your search for source material?
Jamian Juliano-Villani: I just recently watched E.T. again. Turns out Steven Spielberg built the set ten feet above the ground so the actor playing E.T. was never seen by the other child actors, which means they actually thought that E.T. was a real alien, and Spielberg specifically filmed the movie in chronological order to get a genuine emotional response from the child actors. Also, insanely, the actor that plays E.T. was, in reality, a 12-year-old born without legs who would perfect E.T.'s waddle since he was experienced with walking on his hands. It blows my mind that the person inside the E.T. costume was a handicapped child that was never seen but looked at other children through a small hole in a claustrophobic costume. That emotionally trumps the movie times ten.
That is truly shocking. Did any movie scar you for life as a child?
Chills just hearing that name. What kind of teenager were you?
I was kind of a dork, didn't have many friends. I was in between being cool and a dork, if that makes sense. I also have a twin, so I would just hang out with her. I went through a bunch of phases: cheerleading captain, fake punk, emo phase and preppy phase. AKA, I'm flexible.
What was your first job?
Gymnastics instructor at the YMCA.
Tell me about your big show coming up this fall. What’ll be in it?
The show in the fall is at my gallery, JTT, in New York. I'm thinking of doing another ASMR [autonomous sensory meridian response] jukebox hybrid, an ice cream bar, some customized Tiffany lamps and a bunch of paintings. Still figuring this out, obviously.
Are you traveling anytime soon?
Yeah. Just got back from London for a talk at the Royal Academy, going to Milan for my show, Sincerely, Tony at Massimo de Carlo, then to Greece this summer for a show in Hydra.
If your paintings had a slogan what should it be?
Are you ritualistic about studio time? Is it true that you wouldn’t want to live with your own work?
Yeah! Hell no! I spend hours an inch from the canvas stressing about these things. Why would I want to hang a book report above my bed?
Not really. I just go in when I have an idea I'm excited about. I'm not super private about my studio space, so I have friends come in and out all the time. It’s kind of nice to have people chip in for ideas. The more voices, the better.
What other creative shit are you into besides painting?
I'm a part of a collaborative performance project called George de George which started as a joke to make fun of bullshit NY cool-kid fashion. It jumps off from Fluxus and it calls for me and my partners to fight over ideas. We make stuff in order to compete and piss each other off that can turn into, hopefully, something unique. We don’t think about this in terms of good or bad, but we just try to make something genuine within our own shitty means.
We did a fashion show at Serpentine in London this summer. Since I'm not a designer, and neither are the other members, Brian, Billy and Tyson, who are all working artists, we thought it would be ideal to collaborate on clothes, something none of us knows how to do. I figured if no one knows what they're doing, how could you fuck it up? The clothing we made is unwearable and all about action... cargo pants with actual purses sewn on, cropped bubble jackets with a nalgene bottle as a zipper, hoodies that have alarm sensors so you are forced to not remove it in public, etc.
Those hoodies make me anxious. What kind of tropes, stereotypes or situations are you most interested in questioning?
All of them.
Some artists are reluctant to admit Disney is an influence, but you are not shy to say you don’t like Disney animation. Why do feel that way besides the obvious corporate pig stuff?
I think there are way more unique animation studios that ethically, visually and politically do different stuff. Disney is Wonderbread compared to other studios like Halas and Bachelor.
Your no-bullshit approach to art talk is basically what our magazine is founded on. How do you handle pretentiousness in the art scene?
I try not to think about it at all. The pretentiousness is a small part of what the art world is made of. Market, social hierarchies and the elite are all bullshit, but being around creative and interesting people who are pushing the limits is really inspiring. I just try not to get lost in all the hype of art. It’s stupid, so I'm not going to compromise myself to maintain face. I'm not afraid of being embarrassed.
What’s the last thing you painted?
A monarch butterfly.
Do you always work with the projector? Or is it part projection, part freestyle?
I usually work with the projector. It’s faster for me and allows for a strange adaptation of painting that I wouldn’t come to myself—think Picabia type of layers. Of course, I do things freehand as well, or from a computer printout, and I look and paint, look and paint. I did a painting of a Morandi painting (I embedded it into a copy of an Ed Paschke painting I did), and I was trying to do the Morandi in the dark, with the projector. I realized how dumb this was halfway through, because Morandi is all about light, and I realized i was doing a bad, posterized version of the original.
When is appropriation good, and when is it bad?
I always think it’s good.
Tell me why you hate feminism, because all it means is believing in equality.
Stupidly, for my first interview a few years ago, I said, "fuck feminism.” When I said that, I was trying to avoid being put in the front of a feminist agenda, especially one that wasn't my own. Many artists who happen to be women have had to do this in the past. I am also a white, upper-middle-class woman. I live in New York and have the privilege of working full-time as an artist. I know the struggles I’ve had as a woman, but I also know the privilege I have had as a white woman. That's what I meant.
However, I hate being defined by my gender, and maybe that’s what pushed me to say what I said. I'm a petite woman with a crass, Jersey way of speaking. That either rubs people the wrong way, or draws people to me, but I wonder if that’s because women aren't supposed to act this way. By normative standards, my attitude is antithetical to my gender. It's stupid. I want to just be a person in the world. But I will admit, being a woman has its perks!
What are some current random ideas you’ve had lately that might become parts of paintings?
When I was in middle school, I went to the confederate general Robert E. Lee’s house by Arlington Cemetery. When he surrendered to the Union, his house was preserved. There are literally toys on the floor and shit on the kitchen table. I want to do a painting of someone barging into his house, with Robert E. Lee caught off guard, saying, "What the fuck?" Maybe in my brain that sounds more exciting than it does on paper.
It sounds pretty good on paper. How do you make yourself get into that important uncomfortable space as an artist?
Drinking and a bunch of bad ideas with friends, and lots of lists that get edited down over long periods of time. Sometimes an idea on one of my lists is not as good as I thought it was. Once I stop caring about what could be a good idea/painting is when things get more interesting. Being conscious of fucking up assassinates creativity.
How do you know when a painting is successful?
I used to think I couldn't tell, but now I can. I think it has to do with the attitude I have towards it, like if nothing seems gratuitous or decorative, and the painting feels like it just happened naturally and on its own.
What’s the last best song you listened to?
For some odd reason, I have been listening to crunk constantly for the past couple weeks in the studio. I think because some of it is totally mindless, but it gets you hyped. It’s actually really good.
Can you handle communicating with people who have no sense of humor?
I can, but it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. The people I enjoy being around are able to laugh at themselves. If you can't, it means you have some serious ego issues. I was reading about Howard Stern's interview style and his ability to get people to open up. He is incredibly self-deprecating, which makes other people feel comfortable opening up, too. It may seem manipulative, and it probably is, but it leads to a much more candid interaction, which is better to me than some superficial bullshit session.
You have just revealed my own subconscious approach to relating to people. What makes you feel the most content in life?
Making a painting I like or doing my laundry.
What old movies have you watched lately?
I just rewatched this italian movie Dillinger is Dead from 1969, directed by Marco Ferreri. I usually can't deal with subtitles, but this movie has, like, ten words of dialogue. It's about this industrial designer who gets home from work, and his wife has a migraine, so the dinner she made is kind of gross. She goes to bed and he smokes some weed, makes something to eat, kind of goes through his drawers and shit. It actually feels like it's being filmed in real time. He's cleaning out the pantry and finds a gun wrapped in the obituary of John Dillinger. I won't give away anything else.
What’s your favorite recent GIF or internet thing?
My friend Billy showed me a totally amazing clip from So You Think You Can Dance, season 13 episode 9. It's the first dance group on that episode, 15 children dressed up as toys dancing to this crazy hip hop/dance track called "Ain't Playin' Wit’ Ya.” It’s incredible. I was inspired and repulsed. It probably took them months to get it right.
Do the titles just come to you? Like what is your painting, Penny’s Change, about?
Penny's Change is actually about childhood, if you can believe it. I was thinking about birthday cakes, and when you get one that has smeared icing text, and how symbolic that can be to the person whose birthday it is, especially a child. I got a cake made that said, “Happy Birthday, Jamian, we love you very much, love Mom and Dad." Then I took a cab, and drove around with it, and the icing got smeared. That's what's on the sand. The mouth on the figure in the bubble jacket is actually based on my teeth, which were terrible... I am literally one of the "before and after" pictures on my dentist’s website.
Let’s end this with another shocking fact.
No one knows how eels spawn.