IN CONVERSATION WITH
HANS ULRICH OBRIST
Hans Ulrich Obrist I’m going to ask you some questions, and I thought we should begin with the “now.” What’s happening in the studio? What are you working on at the moment?
Jamian Juliano-Villani Right now I’m working on paintings and an installation for a group show at the MAXXI Museum in Rome. Then I’m working on a show in Hong Kong and a series of other projects... Are you asking how the paintings are going to be?
HUO It would be great to hear more about the paintings.
JJV One of the paintings is a young blonde girl, behind bars made of pencils. It’s like being trapped in a bad childhood. Another one is a naked man on the beach, playing with sand. Over his hands I put Petchatz, which is like a Facetime screen I use for my dog when I go away. It dispenses treats and pheromones. The third painting is a skeleton of a girl swan, who is quite prissy and spoiled, swimming in water, but its reflection is of an alive swan who is a boy. Like a bad one though, think of a bully in high school or something.
HUO What are the sources?
JJV I’ve been writing lists of ideas. It’s coming from wherever, whatever works. Once I have the idea, I’ll look literally everywhere for what fits.
HUO It’s our first interview in 2018 and there’s so much stuff we haven’t talked about. One of these things is the exhibition you had at JTT (January-February 2018). I remember that when I came to see it you were wondering about what was happening in the first space. It was exciting because the viewers had to go through a carpeted front space with graffiti in it. Can you tell us a little bit about that transitional space to the actual show?
JJV Usually when you walk into a show, the first and last thing you remember is the door. I feel like a lot of my earlier work, some people thought it was some parallel to street art. I thought, fuck it, let’s just address it and get it out in the air, like a self-aware joke. So I made a fake show of “street art” and graffiti in front of my show, which the whole point was to make my real show look less trashy in comparison. Then the actual show looks less trash. For me it was fun doing it the day before because there is some element of fear which makes it a little bit more real.
HUO Also I remember you said the first space would create a different perspective on the paintings, almost like an antechamber. One large painting was turned into a door so it became functional in some way, right?
JJV The door to the show was a large graffiti canvas saying TOYS CANT HANG, when you push it to the side you see the actual show which is a total breath of fresh air in comparison.
HUO Some people might have thought the show wasn’t ready. It was like that famous Fischli & Weiss show which I saw in the ’90s at Sonnabend, with amazing polyurethane sculptures hinting at construction. A lot of people came out of the elevator, looked in and thought ‘oh my god, they are installing!,’ so they left and kind of missed the show. In a funny way that situation came to my mind visiting your show.
JJV I wanted the JTT show to be more sparse, more reflective, almost like a self-portrait. The fake show in the front, the graffiti show, is called If Balls Could Talk, and then my show was called Ten Pound Hand, which is when a guy pushes your head down to give him a blow job. I thought of it as a ying yang, like this macho bro-type room and then my personal self-portrait.
HUO When one actually passed the threshold in the space there was the amazing painting called Gone with the Wind. This has been the summer of burning fires, of burning forests and of burning beaches in Greece and in LA. I thought that your painting was a sort of premonition of that. Can you talk a little bit about Gone with the Wind and about where its idea came from?
JJV Basically you have two different paintings that work together: the fish in the water that is drinking Coca Cola is more powerful than the firefighter. The fish took a month and a half and the other part of the painting, the fire painting, took four days. All that work, all the fire painting was just a set for the small fish, which otherwise wouldn’t have been taken seriously. On the other hand, if I just did the big fire, it would have looked like my shitty version of Stingel, and there would be no transcendence.
HUO So the fish took forever and the rest of the painting was fast. There is a coexistence of fast and slow. I was with Jonas Wood in LA the day before yesterday, I made a studio visit with him. He mentioned you: he said that he works in an analogue way, which is so different from you because you source all these images and you get all together in the paintings, but in a way which is deeply connected to digital technology. Can you explain your methodology? It’s still painting, because you actually paint it on the canvas, but at the same time it is deeply related to the act of sourcing and combining images digitally. How does one paint in a digital age?
JJV Fucking digital age! I mean, it’s just painting. Everyone is forgetting how it works, I think people think I use the computer way more than I do. Sourcing something on the Internet is not an anomaly anymore, it’s everywhere, it’s not special. So you have to use some kind of real element. I make mock-ups on Photoshop, but sometimes the “thing” doesn’t exist. So I will have to make it out of clay, or photograph it in my house, and use that as a reference.
HUO I was thinking today about one of my favorite paintings in the show: I really loved Shut Up, The Painting, the work with the traffic lights and I also loved that title. Can you talk a little bit about this painting, its title and the role titles play in general in your work?
JJV How many times a day do you just think, like, “Shut the fuck up, shut up!,” I get that frustrated feeling when I look at art too. When I look at something I don’t like I think, “ oh man, just shut the fuck up!” Super base level. It’s my angry version of Roger Brown, I guess…
HUO Roger Brown is of course an inspiration for you, and there are lots of other inspirations you told me about in a previous interview. Can you tell me about what inspired you with Roger Brown and which are the other heroes or heroines, the artists who inspire you, who give you energy or courage?
JJV When I think of Roger Brown I think about the painting of Magic Johnson that says “Homosexuals fuck too.” But lately I have been looking at other artists, like Gertrude Abercrombie, who painted in the ’20s, a lot of Magic Realism, and Kienholz too: when you look at his works you are not sure if they are actually bad or good. And then you see how motivated they are. They have elements of mythology in real time.
HUO I always have this image of him. I made a studio visit and then we went to this restaurant and it was so amazing, because he ate so much, he was like an omnivore.
JJV Look at his art, it’s the same thing, I love him!
HUO And among your contemporaries, in the 21st century, the artists working now?
JJV I love my friends Brian Belott and Billy Grant. Allison Katz is really good. Juliana Huxtable, I like what she is doing. Paul Chan… These are the people I think are doing cool shit now.
HUO Another question I’d like to ask you is about the process. Sometimes you draw, but very rarely. In the studio there are some kind of collages around, which are great, and also lots of books, but most of the time you use projectors. There are multiple sources. We spoke earlier about the idea of velocity and slowness coexisting in the painting. That’s interesting because when I visited your studio I felt there was an oxymoron: on the one hand you paint very fast but then there are moments when it really slows down. What’s the role of the projector? To which extent does the idea of projecting images influence the process?
JJV It’s always on. It’s always on but it’s not a commitment yet. So, even by moving it around, or putting something in front of it, the painting changes in real time, it’s like real life, painting and collage in real life. I like it because it’s so fast, and often times I just keep it on when I’m painting even if I’m not using it, it’s like a security blanket because I’m so used to it.
HUO And what’s the role of drawing?
JJV I do that too. What I showed you they were just quick sketches. But that’s the basis of an idea. The list is more important than the drawing.
HUO Yes! When I visited your studio there were lists on the walls, lists on the table, it reminded me of OuLiPo, the literary movement of the ’60s in France, with Georges Perec, with its obsession for lists. Can you tell me about some of your lists? What kind of lists do you make?
JJV A Trojan horse in the Tampon section of the pharmacy. An archeologist dusting off a dust pussy, a dust vagina. A skyscraper window cleaner who is in a wheelchair.
HUO Great. I have one more question, which is the only recurrent question of all my interviews: as you know I’m obsessed by the idea of unrealized projects. We know a lot about architects’ unrealized projects, because they are always published, but we know much less about artists’ unrealized projects: projects which are too big, too complicated or too expensive to be realized, lost public competition entries, dreams, projects forgotten in a locker. But also projects one wouldn’t dare to carry out because maybe, as my friend Doris Lessing always said, they are self-censored projects. I am very curious to know about some of your yet unrealized projects.
JJV I’d like to make commercials. But especially I would like to make a commercial for Slinky. I think a toy like that has some sepia toned memory, but really rebranding it and updating it would be a total challenge.
HUO And then, more unrealized projects?
JJV I guess writing a book.
HUO A novel?
JJV Yes, a fiction novel. I am actually starting a creative writing class, because I think it would help me develop ideas for the paintings, just as another way to make something.
HUO And have you written in the past, are there existing texts?
JJV Yes, I am going to start having a monthly art-based column. I’m actually a very good writer, but I have never done creative writing so I think now is the time.
HUO Who are your heroes or heroines in writing? I grew up in Switzerland with Robert Walser, I have always been obsessed with him. Who are your favorite authors?
JJV Well, obviously Beckett, but also…, you know Gordon Lish? His writing style is so repetitive and manic, it’s incredible, you feel like you can’t breathe, his books are so manic and back and forth. I really like him and also Stephen King. He just wastes no time, he just knows how to write a fucking story! And those are my two favorites. Raymond Carver is great too. I also like diaries…
HUO Yes, I’m writing a diary now. A one-year diary. I miss a lot of days but then I also have a week where I do it every day. It’s difficult to do it every day.
JJV I like finding other people’s diaries. I look for them in thrift stores and in the garbage. It’s way more interesting, it’s not published, it’s someone actually written personal diary. They are just internal.
HUO And did you ever think of making a film?
JJV Yes, totally. I actually made an infomercial set in my studio. I never could figure out what to do with it though. We filmed some stuff, but I don’t want to watch it yet, I’ll look at it in ten years.
HUO So there is the writing, the potential filmmaking, there is of course painting, collages, so many different dimensions. Very last question: Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this little book called Letters to a Young Poet. In 2018, what would be your advice to a young art student?
JJV My advice would be, don’t look at other art when you’re making art. It will just make you stylize your work instead of actually trying to express yourself. Also, in school is the place to try out everything to see what you actually enjoy doing. And performance isn’t good unless you embarrass yourself.
JAMIAN JULIANO-VILLANI (b. 1987, Newark, NJ, USA) lives and work in New York. The artist draws her varied and colorful iconography from popular culture and imagery, encompassing television, collectibles, and magazines, creating gaudy juxtaposition and uncanny situations. Her works has been exhibited at: JTT, New York (2018); Massimo De Carlo, Milan (2017); Studio Voltaire, London (2016); Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit (2015); Hammer Museum Los Angeles (2016); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2016); MoMA PS1, Long Island City, New York (2015). A selection of group exhibitions include: Low Form, MAXXI, Rome (2018); Something Living, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (2017); Greater New York, MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY (2015).
HANS ULRICH OBRIST (b. 1968, Zurich) is Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London. Prior to this, he was the Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Since his first show World Soup (The Kitchen Show) in 1991, he has curated more than 300 shows.
All images: courtesy the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong