Magic in the mun­dane

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - ARTIST JULIE SPEED The New Mex­i­can Michael Abatemarco

Mul­ti­me­dia artist Julie Speed’s sur­real gouache and col­lage paint­ings hint at more than they re­veal through enig­matic im­agery, con­fla­tions of his­toric artis­tic styles, and ref­er­ences culled from the field of time. But it isn’t nos­tal­gia that draws the Marfa-based artist to the past. Un­der Speed’s hand, the his­tory of art is a ve­hi­cle for ex­plor­ing a con­tem­po­rary vi­sion of ab­sur­dity, one in which as­so­ci­a­tions are abun­dant even if their mean­ings are elu­sive. Speed’s first solo show at Evoke Con­tem­po­rary con­tains more than 50 of her pieces, in­clud­ing paint­ings, col­lage works, as­sem­blages, and works on pa­per. The ex­hi­bi­tion is on view through Jan­uary. On the cover is Speed’s Ku­nisada’s Ghosts (de­tail), 2015, gouache and col­lage. 24

IN the gouache and col­lage paint­ings of mul­ti­me­dia artist Julie Speed, inanity and folly in­ter­rupt the mun­dane, height­en­ing the drama of oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able mo­ments. A tea­room be­comes the set­ting for an act of tor­ture, for in­stance, and a par­lor scene be­comes a sur­real con­fla­tion of in­con­gruities. The par­lor scene, a paint­ing called Ham­mer­head, de­picts two women sit­ting on a sofa be­neath his­toric Ja­panese art prints and an im­age of the Pi­età. One woman is read­ing, while the other is grasp­ing at a writhing ham­mer­head shark. You can won­der at the work’s pos­si­ble mean­ings, but for Speed, mean­ings are sub­jec­tive. They emerge from both the cre­ation process and the mind of the be­holder. “Be­cause my work is mostly fig­u­ra­tive, peo­ple as­sume that I start out with an idea or con­cept and then rep­re­sent it,” she told Pasatiempo. “But I work the other way around. I start with the com­po­si­tion and, more than any other ele­ment, the com­po­si­tion drives the nar­ra­tive.”

Speed’s first ex­hi­bi­tion at Evoke Con­tem­po­rary opens Fri­day, Jan. 6. It’s a trav­el­ing show or­ga­nized by Austin’s Flatbed Press and Ruiz-Healy Art in San An­to­nio. Evoke is show­ing more than 50 works by Speed. An open-ended nar­ra­tive sense makes her art­work enig­matic. Of­ten, ac­tion is tak­ing place, such as the small res­cue boat on the sea in the paint­ing

Ku­nisada’s Ghosts, en route to a sink­ing house in the distance. But the re­la­tion­ship of this lit­tle drama to the cen­tral fig­ures on the shore — a mix of cos­tumed Ja­panese in the style of ukiyo-e wood­block prints made pop­u­lar by Uta­gawa Ku­nisada in the 19th cen­tury, along with Speed’s own styl­ized ren­der­ings of peo­ple — clown­ish, slightly grotesque, and child­like — is un­clear. We want Speed’s work to tell us sto­ries, but here we have the prompts for craft­ing nar­ra­tives of our own. You can look at her paint­ing Milky Way, for in­stance — wherein mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal fig­ures ar­gue over a pile of skulls, with a pack of snarling wolves and a tantrum-throw­ing child get­ting in on the act — as an al­le­gory of war. But the scene’s in­clu­sion of the Milky Way, glimpsed through the win­dows, sug­gests some­thing else — while lead­ers ar­gue, the uni­verse goes on, and will re­main long af­ter men and their petty squab­bles die away. “Milky Way didn’t start out to be about war and its atroc­i­ties,” Speed said. “The geo­met­ric el­e­ments

were in place early, so if it was go­ing to be a com­pletely ab­stract paint­ing, the com­po­si­tion was set­tled. ... Then the news came of another hor­rific event in the Mid­dle East. Some­times the work changes in re­sponse to the news, some­times to what I’m read­ing or think­ing about, or some­times for no rea­son that I can un­der­stand and point to, and while the paint­ing may stop chang­ing when it’s fin­ished, my thoughts about it con­tinue to change long af­ter the work has left the stu­dio. I love that other peo­ple think of things that would have never oc­curred to me.”

Speed works out of a stu­dio in Marfa, Texas. Although she spent a brief pe­riod in the late 1960s study­ing at the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign, she’s mostly self-taught. She uses her medi­ums of gouache and col­lage to com­ple­ment one another, blend­ing paint and pa­per seam­lessly so that her own drafts­man­ship and that of il­lus­tra­tors, whose images she culls for her com­po­si­tions, are co­he­sive. El­e­ments like the Ja­panese fig­ures in her Chris­tian-themed paint­ing Good Fri­day might seem in­con­gru­ous, but their in­clu­sion re­veals a deep-enough knowl­edge of art his­tory, art move­ments, and their stylis­tic con­ven­tions to es­tab­lish as­so­ci­a­tions be­tween them, con­flat­ing events and artis­tic styles sep­a­rated by great pe­ri­ods of time. Her not-es­pe­cially-flat­ter­ing de­pic­tions of peo­ple re­call the images of the un­so­phis­ti­cated masses in Dutch genre paint­ing, like some­thing by Pi­eter Bruegel the El­der (1525-1569). But they also re­call the bardo fig­ures of Ti­betan Bud­dhist art, trapped as they are in cy­cles of ig­no­rance, anger, suf­fer­ing, and pain.

One can see the in­flu­ence of Dutch van­i­tas still lifes in her work, too, which of­ten con­tain me­mento moris, sym­bolic ref­er­ences to mor­tal­ity that ex­press a Chris­tian view of earthly pur­suits, an­ti­thet­i­cal to spir­i­tual dis­ci­pline. Un­der­toad, for ex­am­ple, shows a skull, a com­mon me­mento mori in Western art tra­di­tions, at­tached to a leaf­less tree (the ti­tle comes from the toad nes­tled in its roots). But Speed’s take is less di­dac­tic than that of her fore­bears. Although she takes in­spi­ra­tion from Re­nais­sance art, Dutch paint­ing, an­tique med­i­cal and sci­en­tific jour­nals, and the “Float­ing World” wood­block prints of Ja­pan, among other sources, it isn’t to em­u­late them. Rather, she can use them ma­te­ri­ally, to cast them into reimag­ined sce­nar­ios where these dis­parate artis­tic el­e­ments can con­tinue speak­ing to us out of their orig­i­nal con­text. “The things that I’m drawn to, I’m

not drawn to be­cause they’re older,” she said. “I detest nos­tal­gia. It’s their in­di­vid­ual spe­cific char­ac­ter­is­tics that I’m in­ter­ested in. I un­der­stand that peo­ple think about art in terms of time, place, and sub­ject mat­ter, but I’ve never ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enced it that way my­self. For me, it’s all one.”

A dark sense of hu­mor per­vades Speed’s art­work, which strad­dles an edge be­tween comedy and a dis­com­fit­ing sense of ir­ra­tional­ity. Her fig­ures, of­ten ren­dered as an­gry or be­mused, seem as though they’re caught in sit­u­a­tions of their own mak­ing, cre­ators of their own Hell, with no cog­nizance of the fact that they’re in it. But that doesn’t mean they can’t elicit a laugh or two. Pope De­scend­ing is a case in point. In the paint­ing, men ar­gue over a game of cards with a cooked chicken, a vulva-like split down its cen­ter, rest­ing be­tween them. The Pope, mean­while, can be seen through an open door­way as he is fall­ing down a flight of stairs. “That paint­ing was al­most fin­ished, and I’d painted the lit­tle fig­ure in the back­ground that has tripped on the dog and is fall­ing down the stairs as a self-por­trait. Then I re­mem­bered what hap­pened last time I painted my­self into a paint­ing. About 15 years ago, in a paint­ing called Tea, I painted my­self as the fig­ure in the win­dow of a dis­tant build­ing with my hair on fire. That night we were in­vited to a fancy din­ner party at the home of some peo­ple that I didn’t re­ally know very well. Dur­ing din­ner, I leaned over the ta­ble for some­thing and the can­dle caught my hair and it in­stantly ig­nited with a gi­ant whoosh of flame. It was over in a flash, but the smell re­mained and pretty much ru­ined the party.” The mem­ory prompted her to remove her­self from Pope De­scend­ing and re­place her im­age with the pope. “Then I started laugh­ing be­cause the pope fall­ing down the stairs re­minded me of Mar­cel Duchamp’s fa­mous Nude De­scend­ing a Stair­case, and so I de­cided to ti­tle the paint­ing Pope

De­scend­ing. The very next morn­ing the first thing I saw on my com­puter was the an­nounce­ment that Pope Bene­dict had just become the first pon­tiff since, I think, 1415 or so, to vol­un­tar­ily ‘de­scend’ from the pa­pal throne.”

Not all of the work in the ex­hibit is nar­ra­tive. Speed works in ab­strac­tion, too, but representational el­e­ments still come into play. Death and the Maiden, In

Fla­grante, and In Fla­grante Again, for in­stance, con­tain molec­u­lar and amoeba-like fig­ures derived from old texts. But even among pro­to­zoa, Death ap­pears, shown here as a skull col­laged onto the head of a sper­ma­to­zoal form. “A lot of the col­lage el­e­ments that you no­tice in Death and the Maiden, In Fla­grante, and In Fla­grante Again are from Gray’s Anatomy,” she said. “Gray’s is par­tic­u­larly use­ful be­cause it’s been in steady use as a text­book since the late 1800s, so there are a lot of wrecked copies out there float­ing around, and I find them reg­u­larly. Other col­lage el­e­ments are sourced from old bi­ol­ogy text­books, seashell en­grav­ings and sil­ver pat­tern il­lus­tra­tions from a 19th-cen­tury art jour­nal. I’ve been col­lect­ing wrecked books and pieces of books for al­most my whole life.”

Speed stresses the im­por­tance of us­ing books in dis­re­pair for source ma­te­rial — she chooses to use found el­e­ments as they are, with lit­tle ma­nip­u­la­tion. “The rules to my game are that I’m not al­lowed to take apart any good books, use any in­ter­net-sourced ma­te­rial or my scan­ner and printer to blow any­thing up or down, so I buy what I can find at flea mar­kets, eBay, and junk stores. Some­times I find things while I’m out walk­ing. The precipice in Precipice is a ce­ment­mix bag I found blow­ing down the street. Fire, flood, and chil­dren are my friends, be­cause they ruin the most books. Lately I’ve been find­ing and us­ing a lot of 19th-cen­tury Ja­panese wood­block prints, so I’ve added worms to my thank-you list. Be­cause the wood­block prints were done on pa­per made from the bark of mul­berry trees, the worms can’t re­sist it.”

Pope De­scend­ing, 2013, gouache; op­po­site page, Death and the Maiden, 2014, gouache, col­lage, and ink

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