It’s hard not to be mesmerized by Julia Jacquette ‘s hypnotic paintings. Their luminous, rich surfaces are intoxicating, and yet there is so much more happening in Jacquette’s work than mere surface. Her images of wedding cakes, liquor, hair, vintage ads, food, and interiors capture a perfectionist ideal, and yet slyly undercut that ideal at the same time.
As a female viewer, I find Julia’s’s paintings particularly powerful. What woman hasn’t found herself seduced by the mass media’s fictional depiction of the perfect wedding, the perfect family, the perfect hair, or the perfect apartment? I can’t help but be attracted, as well as repelled, by the glossy, luscious consumerism Jacquette portrays. I envy it, and yet hate the way it has warped our society’s image of what it means to be a woman.
Joan Wickersham’s insightful interview with Julia, which originally appeared in the Bergarde Galleries‘ 2012 show catalog for Julia Jacquette: Liquor, Perfume, Hair, wonderfully captures her artistic process and evolution as a painter.
I’ve admired Wickersham’s writing since I first read her critically acclaimed book The Suicide Index. My respect for her talent has only deepened with her brand-new fiction collection The News From Spain, a potent, unorthodox series of stories that has been keeping me up well past my bedtime in recent weeks.
I hope you find Julia Jacquette’s work and this special interview with Joan Wickersham as eye-opening as I have.
Irony and Desire: A Conversation with Julia Jacquette
A Saturday afternoon in Julia Jacquette’s studio, on the fifth floor of an old building in New York’s Lower East Side.
Interview by Joan Wickersham
In one corner, large wooden racks store paintings and prints from Jacquette’s previous series: images of food, often combined with text, dating from the 1990s; depictions of men and women using 1950s imagery, a series Jacquette worked on from the late 1990s through the early 2000s; white-on-white paintings built around wedding imagery – cakes, dresses, and flowers, as well as abstract geometric color studies exploring the many different whites and shadow-tones used in the series (2000-05); and “My Houses” (2005-07).
Metal shelves hold neat stacks of some of the magazines and books – Modern Bride, Architectural Digest, old copies of Life and cookbooks from the 1950s – she collects for the lush photographic images that inspire her work.
The canvas she is currently working on, a huge oil painting of a cocktail – “big enough to swim in,” she says – is pinned up on one of the vast white walls, surrounded by other pieces from her series in progress, “Water, Liquor, Hair.”
Joan Wickersham: Let’s begin by talking about what you’re working on right now, this huge close-up of a cocktail.
Julia Jacquette: The starting point for this particular painting was a liquor ad in a magazine. I’ve been collecting images of liquor for quite a while, thinking about how I might want to use them. One painting is from an ad I saw in the subway, for Puerto Rican rum. They make giant ads now on sticker material and put them up anywhere. I saw these rum ads at 42nd Street, giant ads from floor to ceiling, repeated over and over – you can walk into the cocktail. And it’s hard when you get deep inside the cocktail to tell where you are.
JW: It’s at once seductive and uncomfortable, disorienting.
JW: Your work contains so many paradoxes: irony and desire, sensuality and anxiety, attraction and repulsion. It’s about seduction, but it’s also about being critical of the seduction. You’re saying “Yes! Yes!” and at the same time, coolly, “No, thanks.”
JJ: Exactly. And those are actually some of the earliest memories I have. I remember ad campaigns in the 1970s. They fascinated me and made me angry. A lot were for Bloomingdales – they knew how to make things appealing. I was sensitive at a young age that I was not living up to the ideal of female beauty. All the stories that are told to young women – there is a moment, around the age of 11, when girls lose their confidence. In order to deal with my own anxiety I quote the media images that provoke anxiety in me – they provoke reverence, and a yearning to own them, and a wish to destroy them.
JW: You work in series. How do you move from one series to the next?
JJ: I know I’m going to make a lot of bodies of work over the course of my life, each lasting for many years. I wait for the next one to come while I keep expanding on the one I’m working on. When I’m planning a series, I will often see the whole story ahead of time. I’m noticing repetition in the world. The images come first – I start collecting, ads for a particular thing. I start seeing the whole package, the series, the body of work. It’s like collecting baseball cards – I’m just a cataloguer. I’m editing in my own mind what could work. I grew up in the 1970s with the example of people like Sol LeWitt – he would choose a shape and think about how many different iterations he could do. My work doesn’t look like his, but the important thing is: How many different iterations can I do?
JW: That idea of multiple iterations has been true of your work since the beginning.
JJ: The first series I worked on as an exhibiting artist combined food with text. I worked on it for eight to ten years. Then I really didn’t want to make any more of that work – I had pushed it to its limits. Now I have ideas of going back to that work – with changes, but I’m ready.
JW: How would you approach painting food differently now than you did 20 years ago?
JJ: It still has to do with desire, but now that desire comes with regret, disillusionment, nostalgia. The desire I had earlier was the desire of a young person wanting the world. Now it would be much more embittered – but I could have a sense of humor about it. And I’d admit to having regrets.
JW: There’s another paradox in your work: anxiety and control. I feel both when I look at your paintings. There’s something disturbing, and it’s perhaps more disturbing because I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.
JJ: I have a compulsive nature that helps me deal with anxiety. To quell or damp it down I make the work. It gives me a sense of control. My work is always a reaction: a narrative in response to the narrative the culture is telling me. I’m always reaching toward the things I’m painting – revering them, but also trying to beat them down, wrangling with them, trying to gain some kind of ownership of them. Making a cocktail so big that I can swim in it. And I’m seduced by it – I am swimming in it, but at the same time I’m aware of the perversity of it. Liquor is seductive to many people, but it can also be repellent.
JW: And dangerous?
JJ: It’s a problematic substance. We as a culture almost never socialize without it. In New York City, many of the bookstores and movie theatres have closed. It seems like bars and restaurants are the only places left to socialize in public.
JW: It seems like a bit of a shift – food is a substance that snares women, but liquor images seem designed to snare men.
JJ: I never thought about that. In my family there are a lot of Scotch drinkers, both male and female. The refrain was always “Let’s celebrate.” But you’re right. In my last series [“My Houses”] there were paintings whose starting point was cologne ads – a man standing in a hotel suite that looked the way the rooms in the Plaza used to look, synonymous with luxury, and he was wearing this classic tuxedo shirt. That ad was probably directed toward men and toward women, too.
JW: There’s always that ambiguity, in any seductive image. Do you want to be that man, or do you want to sleep with him? Do you want to have that hair or do you want to be the person touching it? I also think it’s fascinating that there is very little copy in today’s ads. When we were younger, there were a lot of words. But now the seduction is purely visual.
JJ: Well, even as early as the cave paintings there was narrative without text. But there has definitely been a shift in our culture toward these very complex yet wordless visual narratives. The Tiffany ads are just brilliant at this, using pictures to get across this combination of romance and jewelry and marriage.
JW: Do you think that ads have become more visual because people are more impatient and so the story needs to be told quickly, in pictures rather than words?
JJ: It’s partly that. But I think it’s also because there have been such huge advances in film and photography, and the images are so much more beautiful than they used to be. Even in crappy movies and TV, the filming is beautiful, and that makes the seduction much more intense. You see these characters sitting around, with light streaming in through the windows, light coming in through Venetian blinds. The lighting director must be so good. It rarely ever looks that way in real life, yet when I watch it I think, “I want to be in a house like that, with my husband in a kitchen with those strips of light falling on us.”
JW: It’s fiction.
JW: Are there also particular aesthetic pleasures or challenges involved in painting liquor?
JJ: These big liquor paintings are usually some kind of cocktail with carbonation. I’m interested in the light, the bubbles, the sparkles, the reflections. And the colors: tawny, golden, caramel. It’s the same palette I’m working with in the hair paintings. In a lot of ways they’re color studies. Oh look, it’s the same. But these hair images, painted from ads that are obsessively focused on hair, are another kind of seduction. There are so many blondes in advertising and the media.
JW: You spend years working on each series. Do you find that there are paintings you weed out because they’re unsuccessful in some way?
JJ: The hope is that each painting will work alone and in the group. That each one separately will tell the story the overall group is telling. But sometimes they do the opposite of what I want. I do walk a fine line – I fear that sometimes I fall into promoting the thing I’m critiquing. After the MOMA project [Jacquette was commissioned in 1999 to design a line of paper cups, plates, and napkins for the cafeteria at New York’s Museum of Modern Art] I got a call from a woman who was going to start a chocolate franchise. I had to explain that I wasn’t a product designer or a graphic designer. It was funny to get that call, when actually the MOMA project had been a kind of critique of the marketing done by food franchises.
JW: So there’s a danger in making the image too luscious. Could it also go too far the other way, where the irony becomes too heavy-handed?
JJ: Yes, and I can think of parallels in writing, where the writers fall in love with their own ironic tone. Sometimes writing is too clever – I can’t find the content or enter into the narrative emotionally.
JW: Writers can be so afraid of being sappy or sentimental or purple that they end up being cold. I think you need to allow for strong feeling. A formal structure can sometimes help readers find strong emotion more tolerable. I see this in your work, too, where there is so much feeling. The structure – whether it’s a grid, or text, or the way you crop or group images, or some other sense of your own editorial eye – gives us a safe place to stand. Do you think about an audience when you paint? Are you painting for an audience?
JJ: I do have an imaginary audience – several, in fact. An 11-year-old girl, an 11-year old boy, a 77-year old woman. I want the work to read to generations other than my own. Especially those who are the age I was when the awful story began to form.
JW: So that goes back to the idea of a cultural narrative.
JJ: Yes. I’ve been very conscious of narrative even in supposedly non-narrative descriptions. When I was young I loved the ballet. I took classes, and I wasn’t crazy about them or about performing, but I was fascinated by the visual patterns. And the way I wanted to deal with them was by drawing. I have such vivid memories of being taken to see The Nutcracker: all that beautiful dancing food. That’s what I thought of when I began painting food. And then there was the white lacy scenery – that showed up in my wedding paintings. And the idea of the grid, which I am still working with: that was an idea that came out of watching Balanchine’s choreography. As an adult I’ll still go to the ballet by myself, on Tuesday night, because it’s cheap. I sit there and weep…
JW: Do you think the work you’ve done over your career has been a kind of autobiography?
JJ: It’s completely unintentional, but hilariously parallel to my own life. First I was a young woman in my 20s, yearning for everything in New York: segue into how men and women are portrayed. I had wanted to make an all-white body of work – and coincidentally I did it in my 30s, when many of my friends were getting married and I was seeing all the machinery of the wedding industry. After that I accepted that my work was always going to have this autobiographical content. And with the house paintings – I knew I had this desire for the possession of property, and I decided to hit it head-on. With the current body of work I started with images that attracted me, and thought I’d figure out later why.
JW: How do you keep the emotion alive during the process?
JJ: I always choose images and content that I am adamant about. The body of work then becomes about: Can I sustain it? All of the work contains ambivalence – but that ambivalence had better be interesting. I love my material, which is oil paint. I’m working my way back into the image, not changing it, but oil paint becomes more luminous as you work, if you use it as the old Dutch masters did. You put down thin layers, and the glazes naturally become more luminous. It’s a fact of physics: the light can penetrate and bounce around. I’m just doing a few layers – two or three – whereas they did dozens. It’s kind of uncool these days to be a painter, but I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love using this old medium to talk about contemporary issues and my own anxieties. As good as acrylics have become, and as easy as they are to handle, they just don’t have the luminosity of oil…
JW: When you are working on a piece, how much of what happens is planned?
JJ: It’s something I already see, but my paintings are very process-oriented. In a way they’re silly performances for myself, trying to get this “other” material – oil paint – to imitate photography. There is a tradition of photorealist painting, but mine is beyond that, because it’s admitting to working with highly altered art-directed photos, which are a different kind of reality.
JW: With your work, even the word “photorealism” is an oxymoron.
JJ: Right. The images have already been manipulated. The art director and the re-toucher are like my companions in the room while I paint.
JW: So how does your work surprise you?
JJ: Oil paint is made to blend. I try to be maniacally faithful to the original image – but I am using a primitive medium to capture a digital image. It’s an illusion about an illusion. A lot surprises me. Gouache forces you to schematize and simplify. Oils force you to blend. I get somewhere different with each. Gouache also lets me think of the image as a potential multiple – a lithograph or silkscreen.
JW: What about scale?
JJ: Scale is so much a gut instinct. I tend to go for very small or very big. You either want to have an intimate relationship with it, or swim in it.
JW: You used to work more with grids than you do now. In your earlier paintings, you would sometimes use a grid of as many as 64 squares, 64 separate images within a single canvas.
JJ: I love the grid, love modular artworks. Initially I did quite a bit of it, but then I wanted to see if I could express the same thing in my work by cropping, without multiple images. Instead of putting different modules in a single piece, I now think of the body of work as modular. How much can a single image convey on its own, as well as with its brothers and sisters? Can it work both ways?
JW: Have you ever thought you knew what the next series would be, and been wrong?
JJ: I’ve been trying for some time to make work about architecture. It’s not a wrong idea, but it’s a separate idea and I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ve done a lot of gouaches on paper – the building I grew up in, an abandoned building, an Aldo van Eyck building – originally an orphanage – in Amsterdam from the ‘60s. I’ve been working with images where I superimpose a view of the building on the plan. I’m completely engaged, and am wondering where this idea will go.
JW: You spend time each year in Amsterdam.
JJ: I used to go to artists’ colonies, but that stopped when I met Dan [composer Dan Carlson, whom Jacquette married in 2001]. I didn’t want to be apart from him. So we bought a place in Amsterdam and made our own residency. We go for the summers, and we sublet a studio from an Amsterdam artist who, in turn, goes away to spend summers elsewhere. The residencies I did earlier in my career gave us the model for how to structure our days. We work all day, and then socialize at night.
JW: Has Amsterdam changed you?
JJ: It has. Amsterdam felt familiar, but also exciting, right from the beginning – the utilization of small spaces. You see in the Dutch and their thriftiness the ability to use material well. Compact efficient living space is the norm there. It made me think about philosophies of thrift and sustainability. It also made me think about the city as a shared space – New York is like that, but the Dutch do it better. They treat their city as a big open-air living room. Biking everywhere makes you own the public space. And then of course there are the museums. In the contemporary Dutch art scene, painting is not that big a deal – but because of the Old Masters, I still have a strong conviction about painting.
JW: Has your painting technique changed over the years?
JJ: In some ways I’m still learning how to paint. When I began my last series, the houses, I was still using a high focus through the entire image. But then I started wanting to capture a more nostalgic kind of photo image, where some of the picture is out of focus. In old photos it occurred naturally; what’s interesting is that digital photography can be manipulated to produce the same effect. It’s a kind of false nostalgia. And even the early painters used the camera obscura to paint from – they learned how to use the blurry areas to create space. So the relationship between painting and the camera has existed for years, even before photography existed. But technical skills get lost from generation to generation. People are always rejecting tradition.
JW: That brings us to the subject of teaching. [Jacquette is a member of the faculty at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.]
JJ: As a teacher I believe in knowing as much as you can about many different ways to work. The more skills you have, the more freedom you have. I teach in a public institution, which is run like a big democracy. The good thing is, it takes a long time for things to change. We still have drawing classes as a foundation for designers – for everyone: fashion designers, jewelry designers. A lot of other places did away with drawing, and now the most progressive artists and educators are trying to bring it back. So in a way now we’re ahead because we were behind. Drawing is such a great way of owning something – to take it away is to take away cognition.
I feel that I’m fortunate to be a teacher. Especially since I started working in public education. You can be a nurturer and a kind of parent. Of course it’s different, but you are helping to raise other people. Especially with undergraduates, at a public university, you are being a kind of parent.
JW: Yes, and a very particular kind of parent. I think when young people encounter a teacher who can be a kind of artistic parent, that’s a great gift, and it’s something that they can’t get from their own parents. Most of the time, anyway – maybe some people do. Did you feel you got that from your father, because he’s an architect? What kind of parent was he?
JJ: That’s such a good question. I got a lot from my dad. He was just modeling behavior. Not that he necessarily intended that. He was just home, listening to music and working on architecturally related drawings even when he wasn’t at work. And my life is so similar to that. He was quiet, but influential. And my mother talked about artists – writers, visual artists, choreographers. She would say, “Let’s go visit Mark Twain’s house” or “. . .Emily Dickinson’s house.” She legitimized the life of being an artist. But also putting forth – and this may have been unintentional on her part – that one be must be a known artist.
JW: Can you speak about artists who have influenced you?
JJ: One I always go back to is Philip Guston. My work may not look like his, but I have learned from his use of visual metaphor, especially self-deprecating metaphor. And my old friend Nayland Blake, who is what is now called a “post-studio artist”, works in every medium but painting – again, I admire his use of metaphor, and he is also a dedicated educator. I admire Mira Schor both as a visual artist and critic. And my aunt Yvonne Jacquette, for whom I worked as a studio assistant.
JW: What can and can’t be taught?
JJ: Innate talent can’t be taught. What teachers can provide are the strategies of how to approach art-making. How to make one’s work, how to think about it, how to approach the artist’s life. So it’s everything from talking about how much pigment is in that brand of paint, to the relationship of content to form, to how to live the life of an artist without despairing. I hope I’m offering all of that.
JW: Do you think it is useful to talk about art?
JJ: There’s a tendency among younger artists to talk about theory, and about content, but not about process. But they are linked – you can’t separate them. Sometimes it’s useful to have a conversation with other people, you can learn from what they say and from hearing your own voice. But what I tell students is: you have to be able to articulate it to yourself. The work should be able to say it all – if it doesn’t, it’s failed.
JW: And a last question: If you were infinitely rich, and could buy any three works of art, what would you buy?
JJ: Well, first I’m going to go shopping at the Met. There is a self-portrait by an eighteenth-century woman painter named Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, at her easel, with two pupils standing next to her, looking out at the viewer. It’s gorgeously painted. She’s wearing a blue satin dress, and it is so confident. Look at me, I’m a woman artist, I’m in the academy, I have two pupils, I’m a success.
Then I’d have Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith with the head of Holofernes. It’s one of the great moments in painting, in terms of structure, content, layers of content. We can read it as a painting where she is speaking her own feelings – we don’t know for sure, but we know that she was raped and that there was a horrible trial. And here is this avenging female. A knockout.
And then I’d want Philip Guston’s painting Painting, Smoking, Eating. It is so funny and poignant, and funnily painted. He depicts himself in bed, smoking, with a plate of fries. And he’s looking at his work and working on his work.
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