Painting to Entertain: The Work of Jamian Juliano-Villani

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The Entertainer, 2015© Jamian Juliano Villani, courtesy of Studio Voltaire

Ahead of her forthcoming exhibition at London's Studio Voltaire, we consider the New York-based artist's pleasurably warped body of work

Who? In an age when our minds are less susceptible to the traditional advertising tricks of the 1960s and 70s, and more in tune with the modern indoctrination of stealth endorsements – we’re living in the era of ‘branded content’, after all – it’s refreshing to see an artist willing to lay it all out on the table. And Jamian Juliano-Villani, the next up on London-based non-profit gallery Studio Voltaire’s superior exhibition programme, does nothing if not that. Her gigantic and superbly bizarre canvases present a carefully garbled amalgamation of symbols and references from popular culture, but in such a way that makes her viewers want to both take a picture and look away simultaneously. The discomfort which accompanies that process is all part of her charm.

Juliano-Villani was born in New Jersey in 1987, and her colourful rejection of popular tropes in painting is due in part to her parents’ chosen trade, as she once told Artspace in an interview. “I grew up in New Jersey, and my parents are commercial printers. Being around all of their silkscreen shit, I didn’t want to do art. They don’t really ‘do art,”’ I guess – more like crappy Playboy swag and oversized Superbowl t-shirts.” Instead, she created her own highly unique brand of painting, inspired largely by album artwork and instantly gratifying images, studying at Rutgers university before dismissing grad school to work out of Brooklyn, New York, building an ever-growing client and gallery list in the process.

What? Juliano-Villani’s original oeuvre achieves what many contemporary artists attempt to, and yet which few succeed at; it forms a crucible for popular imagery, from advertising, comic books and cartoon characters, to video game scenes, photographs of nature and familiar faces from television, in which her myriad influences combine to emerge, like Frankenstein’s monster, as something else entirely. As such, the scenes she depicts are both oddly familiar and satisfyingly accessible. “I use a lot of references,” she once told GQ. I want to make really personal paintings, but I don’t want to produce anything that’s super self-indulgent. I want my paintings to work like a TV so that they’re entertaining and you don’t need a discourse to understand them.”

Working in acrylic – the high-minded haughtiness of oils would seem ill-suited, somehow – she employs brush and airbrush alongside one another to conjure up garish faces against domestic scenes or woodland landscapes, occasionally allowing a hint of Dreamworks’ Shrek, or a touch of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, to crop up too. There’s a dose of surrealism in here, yes, but its purpose isn't to present a subtle nod to René Magritte of Joan Miró – it is to slip, subliminal and unnoticed, into the mind of her viewer, and to wreak havoc with everything he or she thinks they know. If the very thought of such an intrusion calls to mind a scene from a sci-fi fantasy film, that’s not so far off the mark.

Why? This autumn, Juliano-Villani’s work will be on display at London’s Studio Voltaire, in the form of a newly commissioned body of work which, in the words of the institution, will respond to the idiosyncrasies of the gallery space. “She will build on the developments in her more recent work, moving away from her complex, dynamic Hieronymus Bosch-esque tableaus, where chaos was the main character, and instead focus on the psychological atmosphere of her paintings in a more personal, intimate way.” How will this play out in the cosy south London space? For the moment, all we can do is guess, but if Juliano-Villain’s ever-growing reputation is anything to go by it will be joyously grotesque, slightly sinister, and oddly similar to a dream you had once one night after watching too much Netflix, but can’t remember exactly what about.

Jamian Juliano-Villani will run from September 30th until December 11, 2016 at Studio Voltaire, London.