The first work by Jamian Juliano-Villani can already be seen from the street: the bluish comic animal face of the Orcaman (all works 2015) grins out at the viewer in an endearing, dopey way. The stained-glass work is installed in the window of the Tanya Leighton Gallery, which presents Juliano-Villani’s first solo exhibition in Europe. Nudge the Judge brings together what the New York-based painter has developed into a kind of signature style over the past two or three years: collages combining all kinds of images – from comic motifs and obscure things found on the Internet to fetish elements and art historical references – to form dark, grotesque pictorial spaces populated by a variety of fantastical creatures. The press release mentions Piet Mondrian, Patrick Caulfield, George Ault, the animations of Ralph Bakshi, and the drawings of the MAD caricaturist Mort Drucker as potential references. I think more of a painted version of Ryan Trecartin’s costumed excesses, or sinister echoes of Jeff Koons’s ultra-precise monster canvases in which toys, erotica and money merge in a perfidious, reflexive way (and in which, similarly to Juliano-Villani, the motifs dissolve into a fragmented kaleidoscope of foreground and background elements).
The cuteness of the Orcaman turns sour as soon as one enters the exhibition space. On the eight canvases painted in acrylic, there are motifs that are far less innocent (with the exception, perhaps, of Storm Ram, an image of a cartoon owl perforated by blue shapes and cartoon elements). For The Entertainer, Juliano-Villani painted a (female) blow-up doll: an angelic curly blond wig sits atop her rubber head. The figure is seated at a piano with her shoulders thrown back; she seems to be singing, although she wouldn’t be able to close her pouting rubber mouth, even if she wanted to.
In Stone Love, a topless woman with a dolphin’s head gazes sadly over her shoulder as she stands in a kitchen wearing garter belts, surrounded by various cleaning utensils. Steam rises from a bucket of hot water as her despondent eyes look in the direction of someone who has perhaps just come home. One inadvertently finds oneself in the role of the patriarchal husband, who lets his dolphin wife stay home to do the dishes. On the other side of the room is Green Marina, a topiary figure reclining behind a tree trunk with ostrich-claw-roots, playing with its
genitals. He, too, seems to be gazing out of the picture – cheekily, as though he knew he were being observed masturbating – he seems to like it.
And so things go their merry way. It’s remarkable that the ostensibly grotesque quality and sexual brutality of Juliano-Villani’s paintings only make up one part of their fascination; the other part lies in the way the viewer becomes an accomplice to a (supposedly) polymorphous-perverse pleasure. In Substance Free, for instance, the viewer looks into the tear-filled eyes of a nude blonde girl whose mouth has been taken over by a grotesquely pasted-on upper jaw. Hairy hands enter the picture from the front (in other words, once again from the viewer’s perspective). The position of the fingers suggests that, in the original image, these hands may have held a sheet of paper. But because the sheet is no longer there, it looks a bit as though these hairy paws were tweaking the crying girl’s nipples. This feels wrong in so many ways, not merely in terms of perspective. Lost between the collaged planes, trapped in twisted sight lines. Back outside, one gazes through the eyes of the Orcaman to the interior, instead of letting him look back. The illusion of the innocent, distanced gaze that belongs entirely to us remains the only true perversion.
Translated by Andrea Scrima