Disclaimer: My first interaction with the work of Julie Verhoeven was in 2002, in the form of her fabric-covered Fatbottomedgirls book, which had somehow made its way into my rural school library (filed under 'miscellaneous'). Like countless other students that had thumbed its pages, I was captivated by her fleshy, carnal illustrations that teased the viewer with their visceral spurts of colour and raw suggestions of form. Tits, bums and psychedelia make for a heady mix, after all.
Some 14 years later, I was fortunate enough to step inside the British artist’s home-cum-studio in South London, where she has resided for the past 22 years. Entering the Verhoeven residence is a little like visiting a living, breathing retrospective. The walls, floors, doors and even the ceiling contain remnants of her oeuvre – from the candy-pink Fanny On Form cushion she crafted in 2014, to the small deskside disco ball that has become a recurring motif in her most recent performance artworks.
She invites me to take a seat in a red swivel chair, affixed with a silver toilet roll holder. Everything, including Verhoeven, is charming. Everything, including her loaded collection of fabric swatches and rare magazines, intrigues me. “It’s all a bit mushy,” she says, when prompted to describe her studio space. “Mushy is really warm isn’t it, but also quite gross.”
The first thing that strikes me about Verhoeven is that she’s remarkably modest. Not only is she one of the most celebrated (and imitated) fashion illustrators of the past two decades – lending her skills to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Mulberry and Marc Jacobs – but she’s also widely respected for expanding and diversifying her practice with immersive performance art and short film projects. “Drawing was just getting on my nerves because it wasn’t satisfying and they were too small,” she says softly. “Once I delved into video, I realised that I could say and do so much more. Originally I was quite fearful of it, because it’s quite technical and I am not.”
Fortunately, she persevered and esoteric film shorts such as Whiskers Between My Legs (2014) which featured as part of a small exhibition at the ICA; Two Sandwiches Short of a Lunchbox (2012) shown at New York’s Gallery Melissa and most recently a two-part series Phlegm & Fluff (2016), which went on display at Kunsthalle Bern, are the result. I confess that I think her work is very admirable, and touches on pressing issues such as gender identity and female empowerment with refreshing wit and candour, to which she replies, “Well, I cringe at some of it. But, I suppose that it’s honest and sometimes it’s about timing, some things hit right and sometimes they have no relevance.” Before adding, “I just make work to be happy and when I’m not working I’m quite grumbly.”
If this is the case Verhoeven should be feeling positively elated, because she has been very busy of late. In August, she was commissioned to magic up the show-stopping accessories for Marc Jacobs’ S/S17 runway show – which ran the gamut from washed denim rucksacks to snakeskin satchels and fierce platform boots, loaded with gonzo-esque emblems: lemons, fried eggs, pills, fingernails and bug-eyed frogs. For October, she’s about to unleash what she dubs “a modest invention” at the men's and women's toilets at Frieze Art Fair 2016 in London’s Regent's Park. “So, I’ll be putting bits and bobs in the toilets, lightening the atmosphere up a bit. I’ll be there for five days with my trolley, my kit and products. Plus, I’ve done a radio broadcast that will be playing,” she reveals. It seems that toilets – a universal leveller – have always had a place in her heart. “Yes, I’ve always loved toilets, their plumbing and mechanics. At a fair they provide a real sanctuary, don’t they? You can relax a little.”
In her designated washroom, Verhoeven will assume the role of a toilet attendant, clad in a custom outfit to match the custom toilet seat covers, loo rolls and bog stickers. “I thought that would be quite funny. I find the whole hierarchy of an art fair quite sad and obviously the position of a toilet attendant is often considered to be quite demeaning,” she says, adding: “Also, sitting and watching people reminds me of the feeling of individuating.” Aside from dishing out paper towels, spritzing room fragrances and making small talk, she plans to play a few tricks on unsuspecting visitors to liven up the experience. “One day I’m going to stick a pound coin on the floor,” she exclaims. “I’m avoiding drawing, but I will have a word search on me if I get a bored.”
While this all might appear fairly spontaneous, the idea has been brewing in Verhoeven’s mind for quite some time – “hunting and gathering” as she puts it – and was largely inspired by British drag icon, Dame Edna. “I kept coming back to this book about Dame Edna’s beauty routines – it’s so grotesque, beauty tips and that sort of thing. It’s so very good and worth getting,” she says. “Good old Dame Edna.”
At this point in our conversation, she reaches over and switches on the aforementioned disco ball. Small, rainbow coloured beams whirl around the space. It seems fitting. “I’m quite partial to disco balls really. This one came in a set of three from Argos – they just cheer everything up,” she says. I ask her whether she keeps the device rolling while she works. She shakes her head, which makes her earrings clack emphatically. “But I do need visuals and I need noise, music. I need city life, so I need excessive amounts of stimuli. I don’t like quiet or calm, I like frenzy. But having said that, to make work I need to be isolated, ideally,” she adds. “I suppose, though, the driving force [for her practice] has always been ‘I’m going to die’. As I’ve got older, I think ‘god, I’ve got to get this work to improve, it needs to look different, it needs to satisfy’. But then again, who cares? You’ve only got to please yourself.”
'The Toilet Attendant… Now Wash Your Hands' by Julie Verhoeven will run at Frieze Art Fair London from October 6-9, 2016.