Gallery  March 25, 2024  Rebecca Schiffman

Jamian Juliano-Villani's Gagosian Show Doesn't Give Easy Answers

© Jamian Juliano-Villani Photo: Rob McKeever Courtesy Gagosian

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Spaghettios, 2023. Oil on canvas. 73 x 83 1/2 inches (185.4 x 212.1 cm)

Walking through Jamian Juliano-Villani’s latest exhibition It, up at Gagosian, it was hard to discern what “it” is: What brings these works together? What kind of message is the artist trying to send? What joke is she trying to make? I spent a while trying to come up with an answer. Was “it” a social commentary on memes and humanity, or maybe “it” is about everything, the over-saturation of the media, or was it making fun of the viewer's need for some sort of answer at all? While I don’t have an answer to any of these questions, for me, the exhibition’s ambiguity and open-mindedness are the qualities that make good art compelling. They don't make for easy answers, but they get us thinking.

Photo: Rob McKeever © Jamian Juliano-Villani Courtesy Gagosian

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Self-Portrait, 2023. Oil on canvas. 102 x 76 1/2 x 1 1/4 inches (259.1 x 194.3 x 3.2 cm)


Most critics call Juliano-Villani’s work “irreverent” due to its disregard for traditional boundaries, but in doing so, they overlook the deeper exploration of societal norms, cultural symbols, and the absurdity of the human experience that defines Juliano-Villani’s voice. The show quite literally opens with this notion of irreverence with a full-length double portrait of the artist herself, standing in front of a young and handsome Elvis Presley, her hand palming Elvis’s crotch. They stand against a pink, ethereal background. It’s quick, to the point, bizarre, and so photo-realist, it looks like the artist asked AI to create the image. 

On the opposing wall is a massive, double image of Jean-Michel Basquiat sitting in a red chair. It evokes Andy Warhol’s screenprints of socialites and celebrities, made obvious by the subject and the repeated image, but it also speaks to the media-driven narratives that shape our perceptions of artists. Basquiat wasn’t just known for his art, but for his personality, his friends, and his exposure on the scene. 

“I still don’t really care that much about Basquiat, but I respect and relate to the cult of personality thing," Juliano-Villani told Cultured Magazine in an interview. "It’s also a pastiche because all artists are kind of like props of identity. I know that’s what I’m being used for.”

© Jamian Juliano-Villani Photo: Owen Conway Courtesy Gagosian

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Sloppy Joe's, 2024. Oil on canvas. 83 1/2 x 127 inches (212.1 x 322.6 cm)



The exhibition continues with paintings that seem larger than life, but contain figures depicted at a life-size scale. This juxtaposition allows viewers to both relate to the robotic figures on display and simultaneously feel a sense of distance from them. Take the work Sloppy Joe’s, (2024). Four women stand or sit in an undisclosed space, and all of them look real, but also like mannequins. Their bodies are rigid, holding their poses as if they were mechanically created to do so, their legs perfectly shiny and their hair like helmets, without a single strand out of place. 

But the more one looks, the more confusing the scene gets. What initially appears to be light emanating from two large hanging pendant light fixtures reveals itself to be strange, light-filled objects, almost as if one took a bed sheet and wrapped it around the light fixture giving the light a puffy physicality. Loaves of bread line the upper shelf, but why are they there? One woman holds what at first looks like a menu, but on second glance is an oversized oyster with a giant pearl. While the title is Sloppy Joe’s, there are no ground-beef sandwiches to be found, and no apparent connection to the title.

Photo: Maris Hutchinson Courtesy Gagosian

The artist in her Brooklyn studio, 2024

Spaghettios (2023) seems to be Juliano-Villani’s take on a still life. Spanning a six-foot-by-seven-foot canvas, she depicts a bowl of Campbell’s classic ring-shaped noodles in tomato sauce in a can on a tray, a glass of fizzy water, and the Campbell’s can, all in strikingly realistic detail. The obvious reference seems to be to Warhol, who made the Campbell’s can famous in his 1962 series Campbell’s Soup Cans, depicting the can for every variety of Campbell's soup, and creating one of the most recognizable works of Pop Art. But beyond that, why Spaghettios? And why now? Again, no answer. 

I couldn’t help but think: Yes, this is a contemporary take on a still life, but is it truly contemporary? Do I know anyone who actually eats Spaghettios? Rather than speak directly about the contemporary now, it reminded me of my childhood, watching Campbell’s commercials where the bouncy circular pasta shape would rap lyrics about how they were “Mm mm good!”  Was that what she was after, in confronting the viewer with suppressed or hidden-in-time memories?

Maybe I shouldn’t think that hard about Juliano-Villani’s work. All I did was laugh when walking past one work—a painting that reads, “Steamy Little Jewish Princess,” with the letter "t" replaced by an image of a cactus wearing a cowboy hat. Maybe sometimes it doesn’t have to be that deep. But in other works, especially with her Self-Portrait (2023) and the paintings with random car parts painted atop incredibly detailed Aztec-printed quilts, it’s difficult to not think too hard, given the level of technical skill that Juliano-Villani has achieved.

If anything, “It” makes clear that Juliano-Villani has a lot to say, and is just getting started. Her works reveal so many dichotomies that it’s tough to keep track. But her voice is clear, even if it’s created by having no specific aesthetic to begin with.

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