Jamian Juliano-Villani has been a vegetarian since before she was a teenage cheerleader in suburban New Jersey, but when the 33-year-old artist recently set out to make a painting about the death of a lobster, she determined it was necessary to kill a couple of them to generate source material.
“It was awful!” Juliano-Villani says, her raspy voice anguished as she practically acts out the scene, which she and an assistant documented in photographs. “We boiled one, and the other one knows. He sees the other one die. It was evil! He’s like, ‘Oh, my turn next.’ I could just tell. Its eyes totally glazed over right before it went in the pot.”
Since lobsters can live for more than a hundred years, Juliano-Villani’s plan is to depict events that may have occurred during the crustacean’s time on earth as they flash before its eyes as it dies. “Like the Boston Tea Party and shit,” she says. “It’s going to be, like, Reagan getting inaugurated, and then Opening Ceremony closing, and then probably an install shot painted of my first show or something.”
That unwieldy mélange of references is an ideal primer to Juliano-Villani’s paintings: They’re bizarre, ambitious, and sometimes unsettling, but never unamusing. She cribs images from stock-photo services, memes, films, television, and art history, then airbrushes them into the brilliantly colored compositions that have made her one today’s most exciting artists.
It’s all happened rather quickly. Juliano-Villani’s first solo show—the one that dying lobster may have glimpsed—was in 2013 at a tiny, now-defunct gallery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Seven years later, her work is in the collections of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Whitney Museum in New York. Collectors rush to acquire her work from her dealers, the high-powered Massimo De Carlo (of Milan, London, and Hong Kong) and the much-admired upstart Jasmin Tsou, who runs the gallery JTT in New York.
When I last stopped by Juliano-Villani’s studio, several years ago, it was located in her small apartment in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, and her supplies had pretty much taken over the place. These days, she works in a cavernous warehouse space in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. On this winter afternoon, partially finished paintings are arrayed around her studio. Her assistant is adjusting a digital projector—the artist’s essential tool—so that they can keep working on a canvas featuring two young, pasty-faced twin girls doing gymnastics stretches.
Juliano-Villani’s miniature Australian shepherd, Timmy, named for the South Park character, shows off his skateboarding skills—he mounts a deck and Juliano-Villani gives him a push—before settling down for a nap. Not far away hangs a portrait of him that she had a Chinese painting factory make from a photograph for $400. Meanwhile, she never stops moving, pausing only to apologize to the neighbor who comes by to complain about her smoking.
A compact dynamo at just over five feet, the artist talks at a clip, walking circles around me as she tosses out ideas for her at JTT. She intends to hang a bunch of paintings spread all over the walls, salon-style, and display a few robotic sculptures, a recent interest of hers.
“You know what a Murphy bed is?” she asks. “We’re going to have a shitty one made where it goes up and down by itself, like it’s doing a workout. And then we’re probably going to put a big black-and-pink Chanel terrycloth headband on it. That one’s going to be in a room by itself because no one’s going to buy that.” Where did that idea come from? “Drunk shit,” she says, matter-of-factly.
It’s true that Juliano-Villani’s art can radiate the absurd logic of alcohol, but it has earned a devoted following because it also does a great deal more than that. It’s neither random nor nihilistic. Borrowing images we might see every day and plucking others from obscurity, she makes paintings that trip you up, that are filled with pathos or even poignancy.
A frog with—there’s no other way to say it—a sizable ass sits on a ladder, forlorn, staring at a blank wall. A fireman trudges into a flame-filled darkness (she found that source picture by searching “serious photo” online). A stop-light, black trees swirling around it, reads “SHUT UP.” “It’s so dumb that you can’t talk about it,” she says of that last painting, with a measure of satisfaction. “It’s so grossly stupid it cancels itself out. It’s almost Leslie Nielsen–level.”
Her friend the artist Brian Belott mentions other comedians when describing her. “She would vomit at me saying this, but, kind of like Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin, she has these defining cartoon features, which make her lovable,” he says. (Her delight, for instance, in a certain obscene hand gesture, and her steady stream of expletives.) “She’s pretty amazing at disarming people or even situations by her attitude.”
But there is a darkness, too, Belott adds, and it’s visible in her paintings. Trying to describe her own work, Juliano-Villani asks me if I can think of a word for the feeling “when you can’t make up your mind.” She pauses. “I keep on saying car accidents—where you want to look but you don’t want to look.”
Back when she was an undergraduate at Rutgers, in New Jersey, Juliano-Villani made paintings that are almost the exact opposite—tight geometric abstractions inspired by postwar giants like Al Held—of those she creates now. She only started making her cartoon-inflected art in 2013, the year she moved to New York and had her first show.
At the time, she held day jobs working for figurative painters like Jules de Balincourt, Erik Parker, and Dana Schutz, and one day decided to experiment with an airbrush. “I like it because it’s super democratic,” she says of the tool, which is used for everything from street-art murals to car ornamentation. “It’s fairly low, shitty, trashy stuff. You can’t elevate this, ever.” (Her parents, as it happens, owned a commercial printing shop in Jersey.)
When she began to develop her trademark style, the baleful craze of the emerging end of the commercial sector was so-called Zombie Formalism, in which abstract painting that looked like decades-old work was artificially reanimated. Juliano-Villani’s meticulous, discomfiting canvases felt like a welcome sign of new life. She was working alongside a loose circle of artists that included Belott, Joshua Abelow, Billy Grant, Annie Pearlman, and Van Hanos; they were egging each other on, experimenting wildly, and showing at influential artist-run spaces.
Early on, Hans Ulrich Obrist, the globetrotting curator and director of the Serpentine Galleries in London, came by for a visit. He’d been tipped off to her work, and he recalls being entranced by its diverse references. He was struck, also, by Juliano-Villani’s consideration of her fellow artists: She insisted that he meet some of her artist friends before leaving town. “I think the generosity of Jamie is really incredibly important,” Obrist says.
In 2016, Obrist hosted a performance at the Serpentine Pavilion by Belott, Grant, Matthew Thurber, and Tyson Reeder. Their hour-long spectacular was part fashion-show parody, part absurd vaudeville act (Belott performed sound poetry in the vein of Finnegans Wake), and part sheer anarchy. Near the end, as the song “Christmas Time Is Here” blared, Juliano-Villani was firing wet baby clothes from a T-shirt cannon while she hid in a suitcase pulled by Obrist. “They came up with another version of Dada,” Obrist says admiringly. “We were energized for weeks afterwards.”
To prepare for their performance, the artists made lists of possible material, something Juliano-Villani does in her own practice. She asks people for ideas, prints out images, and stuffs her raw material into boxes, saving them for when she needs something to paint. Her art is about the sheer joy of walking right up to the line of what is illegible—or even unacceptable—and enjoying your time there. “My personal taste has nothing to do with it,” she says of her work.
You know what a Murphy bed is? We’re going to have a shitty one made where it goes up and down by itself, like it’s doing a workout.
Recalling a 2014 studio visit with the artist, the MoMA PS1 curator Ruba Katrib says, “It was clear that she was citing so many things and doing so much research to build up her paintings.” Katrib put Juliano-Villani in her first institutional show, organized with the artist Camille Henrot at SculptureCenter in Queens. The Whitney curator Laura Phipps first saw her work around that time. “I remember thinking that no one was painting like this,” she says, “at this scale, with this weird specificity and disorienting realism.”
Over the past decade, Juliano-Villani’s paintings have become more spare and enigmatic. They read less like frenetic collages of cut-up images than like playful riddles. She’s “trying to make them less decorative,” she says, and also less easily digestible. When a swan skeleton resting on water looked a bit too cool, she added the phrase “VISIONS OF BILLY’S PENIS” to the pond, “in order to flex on the dumbasses online,” she says, “to keep them from liking it.”
What makes following Juliano-Villani’s art particularly thrilling right now is the sense that it could move, suddenly, in some strange new direction. She’s using the Chinese painting mill (the same one that made her dog portrait) for parts of pieces she’s developing, and she’s dreaming up those sculptures. Running to her computer, she fires up a 1960s video of the Dutch avant-gardist Karel Appel slapping paint onto canvas with a vigor that verges on comical. “This makes you want to paint!” she says, disappearing behind a table. When she pops up, she’s holding a pair of mint-and-white rollerblades, which, she explains, she’s been wearing while trying to paint abstractions. Making this process even more complicated, she’s also been strapping her airbrush to a stick and working with her eyes closed.
At the moment, her main priority is readying a group show called “Junque” at De Carlo’s London space in March that will feature, she says, “just a bunch of shit that I like.” Among the artists she’s including are John Waters, Malcolm Morley, Maurizio Cattelan, and her mother, who will display her own elaborate, handmade holiday displays in the tony gallery’s front window. (“Disgusting!” says her daughter.)
“There’s only so much shit you can get to do with [your own] paintings,” Juliano-Villani says. “That’s why I’m so excited to do shit with other people’s work. Finally.”
Still, there are new paintings to be made in her usual mode, and she’s mulling what to put in between the two twins who are mid-completion in her studio. “I don’t want something sexual,” she says, “because that’s dumb, so we’re thinking a yellow highlighter that says ‘NAUGHTY’ on it.” But doesn’t that seem a bit sexual, too? “I know, I know,” she says, before suggesting that “a 3D Andy Warhol banana” might do the trick.
Juliano-Villani is churning through possibilities, ping-ponging ideas off those present. But there is always a chance that a painting might die on her. “I don’t really care if I spend 80 hours on something and toss it,” she says. Pointing to one that has so languished, she says dryly, “We all fucking hate it now.”
It’s time for a smoke break, and as we head outside, we start talking about performance. She loves doing live events, but she’s reluctant to restage them. “You can’t say the same thing over and over again,” she says, “because then there’s no element of fear. That’s the thing that makes it good.”
This story appears in the March issue of Surface. To experience the complete issue subscribe here.