Jamian Juliano-Villani: ‘Art Is the One Place Where You Should Not Censor Anything’

Jamian Juliano-Villani. Photo: Musacchio Ianniello. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI, Rome and Massimo De Carlo, Milan

I met Jamian Juliano-Villani around the time she was showing some of her first paintings, about eight or nine years ago. She was like a character from my childhood fantasy of the East Coast: the loud and proud Italian from New Jersey, acting and doing as she pleased. She smoked and drank with gusto, cursed in nearly every sentence and seemed to pay no attention to the social graces of artworld etiquette.

In the next few years, I watched her career explode in a furious entrepreneurial streak. While her early paintings were modestly sized appropriations of comics, her new work expanded in scale and content, collaging a potpourri of styles and disparate subject matter in a single canvas. Her popularity bloomed. Meanwhile, it was clear that she was less concerned with painting and more with the curating of imagery. Her focus was on culling familiar ideas from the collective brain – the internet, old books – and jamming them together until they cancelled any possibility of meaning, which is a recipe for humour.

During these years, the culture had grown increasingly sensitive to the political implications of language, but Juliano-Villani, almost in defiance, has settled deeper in her ways. She refuses such niceties, both in her life and work. She sometimes takes to social media to speak about the issues of the moment, or about her self-tanning lotion, or about herself. Whatever the topic, she is always toeing the boundary of good taste – that charged, liminal zone where art thrives.

In 2020, right at the onset of the pandemic, Juliano-Villani curated a show at Massimo Di Carlo in London, and this seemed to whet her appetite for curating. So, for the next year or so, she will focus her attention on building a new gallery in New York. She describes her vision to me as an exterior like an Irish- American bar – its name will be O’Flannery’s – with an interior like a sober insurance office. She plans to do a series of two-person mashup shows including artists, designers and illustrators not usually seen in galleries – “but no friends”, she tells me. In other words, the same disorienting clashes that play out across her canvases will now take place in a physical space with real people in the middle of Manhattan. Her expansion continues.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Sincerely, Tony, 2017 (installation view, Massimo De Carlo, Milan, 2017). Photo: Roberto Marossi. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan

ArtRank Is Evil

Ross Simonini This gallery idea you have – are you funding the whole thing yourself?  

Jamian Juliano-Villani Yeah. I just don’t want someone like fucking puppet-mastering my ass, you know? Like that’s the thing, once you do something with someone else, they think they have a say. But I don’t want anyone else to have a say. I just want to be able to do what I want. And it’s going to be really, really fucking expensive. I know I’m going to lose money and that’s fine. Like I’m not trying to make money. I’m just trying to do cool shows that are fun and weird and smart, you know? And that’s it. 

RS Have you been puppet-mastered before? 

JJV All the time, all the time. I mean, dude, think about it? Like, you know what kind of things I make, right. So lately I’ve been doing weirder and weirder shit, and people just want the same fucking thing from me, you know? And I can’t really like argue with them because that pays my fucking bills and shit. And also like, I’m good at making whatever the fuck I make, but certain collectors don’t want to buy something from you if it’s like different, especially at the same price point. I mean, do you remember that website ArtRank?

RS Yeah. It ranks artists’ work: ‘buy now’, ‘sell now’, ‘peaking’. 

JJV So if you’re an artist who survived ArtRank, you understand what I’m saying. Anyone that hasn’t survived ArtRank, fuck off. 

RS Is that still going on? 

JVV It stopped because someone saw it was like really fucking evil, which it is. It’s like high school shit, you know? Also like, as a painter, you already feel like a cheeseball, you know, ’cause like most painting sucks, and then you have to go through that. 

RS Were you in the ‘sell now’ category? 

JVV I totally sold out like a bunch of times, please. 

RS No, I said sell ‘now’ not ‘out’. 

JVV Oh, yeah, I was on ‘peaking’ first and then I bounced around the whole site. Bullshit. But that’s funny though… selling out. 

RS Well, by all means, let’s talk about selling out. 

JVV So to me, the sellout thing is for people that don’t have a long-term goal. You know, this is my opinion. I think people that sell out don’t have a long-term goal. So you can do like really rude shit or something really stupid. That’s fine. You’re supposed to be fucking up all the time. Like, that’s the cool thing about like making art and being an artist. But I think like once people lose vision of what the fuck they’re doing, that’s when you feel like a sellout. And I felt like that a bunch of times. I’ve been in shows where someone’s telling me what to make, or asked to do like an editorial for a magazine. Like, what am I? An illustrator? But, actually, fuck it, I don’t think I’ve ever really sold out, even though my work looks cheeseball. But I mean, we’re both already selling out, we’re making art! 

RS It’s funny because I grew up in the punk scene and every band was obsessed with the refusal of selling out. 

JVV Totally dude, and me too, but then like you think about really good albums that are based on selling out like the Residents or that Frank Zappa album Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. Like you could sell out in a smart way. Instead of just like getting money and looking dumb, you can make everyone else look dumb.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, TBT, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 102 × 122 cm. Photo: Alessandro Zambianchi. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan
Jamian Juliano-Villani, Corridor of Affection, 2017, crylic on canvas 127 × 186 × 4 cm. Photo: Alessandro Zambianchi. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan

Jokes Are the Only Thing I Take Seriously

RS Do you fold the selling into the art? 

JVV Definitely, dude. I mean like, listen, I’ve said this a million times: I think my work is ugly. I don’t care about that. I don’t think it looks nice. It’s like a car accident. I would never put the shit in my house, blah, blah, blah. Right? It makes you question your taste because I don’t even like them. I don’t care about tastes when I’m making them. I’m caring about presenting an idea. Like, I think it’s cool when someone makes something and you’re almost disgusted by what you made. Like, what the fuck did I do? That’s the exciting part. And I think a lot of people aren’t prepared to do that ’cause they don’t want to embarrass themselves publicly. ŒŽ

RS Do you see your paintings as jokes? ‘

JVV I mean, they are jokes, but also, if I took the time to paint all this little bullshit, I clearly am taking this seriously. I mean, sometimes I think jokes are the only thing I take seriously. Œ

RS Your ideas come from notes you write down, sentences which are basically jokes, but the paintings seem almost nonverbal, almost too specific to describe. 

JVV It’s like sometimes I like making things that are so aggressively stupid, you can’t even talk about them. So then they negate themselves. Like I painted a stoplight that says ‘shut up’. So the whole point is like, there’s nothing to talk about. Like, come on, man, leave it. You know what I mean? It’s like, that’s how dumb this thing is. Like, you can’t even like – there’s no conversation around it! I like that, where it almost leaves you speechless. ŒŽ

RS Would you say that you dislike your work, or is that different from its ugliness? ‘

JVV I mean, I like the intent. But I don’t care. Like, just because it’s painting doesn’t mean I give a fuck about the way it looks, you know what I mean? That’s a fantasy about painting. It’s so lame to me that people care about the way something looks like historically or whatever. I think it’s cool when something has no history or is just immediately garbage. That at least like catches people. Does that make sense? Do I sound crazy? ŒŽ

RS So if you don’t care about the way it looks, what is it that you care about? ‘

JVV Emotional quality. Just like, whoa, that thing’s something I just saw on TV yesterday because it’s fresh to me. You know what I mean? And then I’m going to put this with some other thing and it’s like fucking funny. I had this idea for a painting where it’s an Aboriginal tribe in a circle, but in the middle of it, it’s like a Ferrari doing a doughnut. And like that’s trashy as fuck, but I haven’t seen that shit yet… ŒŽ

RS Have you – ‘

JJV Whenever I talk to you like this, not in like real life, it’s a different tone. You know what I mean? ŒŽ

RS How so? ‘

JVV You’re not laughing. ŒŽ

RS You want me to laugh more? ‘

JVV Yeah, maybe just fake laugh a little bit more on the phone with me and then we’re good for now. ’Cause I’m like sweating bullets right now.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 102 × 122 × 4 cm. Photo: Alessandro Zambianchi. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan

Everyone’s Terrified the Fuck Up

RS You obviously have ideas about bad art. Do you have criteria for good art? ‘

JVV Good art is doing what you want, you know? And like not thinking about what someone else is going to see. That’s selling out, actually. It’s literally caring too much about other people’s thinking – how it can be read and interpreted – and not doing what you really want to do. That’s when art starts to suck. And that’s why art has been so bad for the past couple of years. ’Cause everyone’s terrified the fuck up, and just doing things for other people.

RS Maybe this is why people don’t care about selling out anymore. In pop music, selling out is good now. ‘

JVV Well, the whole thing is, people think that artists create culture. But now we’re just fucking using culture, you know? We don’t create shit anymore. We’re just like copying it, like, “Look at pizza, dude!” The fuck is pizza? You know what I mean? So like everyone needs to chill the fuck out.

It sucks the way that things are going right now because I’ve not seen one goddamn thing I thought was really cool recently. Maybe because it’s coronavirus, maybe because everyone’s a pussy – who the fuck knows! But like, I want to see someone really go crazy and fucking like unwind. Like look at Bjarne Melgaard when he was like being bankrolled by the fucking Norwegian people: that shit banged! You know why? Because he was being a fucking brat. But no one’s allowed to be a brat right now, which sucks.

Like, why can’t you be snarky? Why can’t you be an asshole? You have to be like soft all the time now? You’re supposed to be thinking all the time. Like questioning shit. I sound like a crazy person, I know. But now it seems like I’m supposed to be making art to make people think about themselves, you know? And, I mean, the shit I make, it’s like, I’m thinking about myself the whole time! So I’m like, what the fuck is this? Is something wrong with me? You’re allowed to have fucked-up thoughts and you’re allowed to fuck up. You’re allowed to do whatever you want, but now like everything’s fucking like whiplash. It sucks. And that’s why I want to do this gallery, because it’s like, everything sucks so bad.

You know, I was watching South Park the other day. Did you see the, um, the PC baby episode? The Caitlyn Jenner episode? It is so fucking funny, dude. Like this guy’s getting ostracised by the whole town because he won’t say, “Caitlyn Jenner is a hero”. He goes to this bar and it’s all white bros and they’re all saying, “Caitlyn Jenner is beautiful and she deserves everything that she gets!” And it’s like, shut the fuck up, you know? ™š

RS At this moment, I think people aren’t even aware of the ways we are censoring our own thinking. ›

JVV Yeah. And it sucks. Like literally I was watching this Frank Zappa interview around the censorship and all the ‘parental advisory’ bullshit with Tipper Gore. And it’s like, this is such bullshit! Like Gore’s argument was basically about this one Prince album with one stupid reference to incest, and the interviewer asks Zappa, “Do you think that incest is ok?” How the fuck is anyone going to have an opinion on that? I got so emotional watching this thing because it’s like 30 years old and it’s way more fresh than every other piece of shit I’ve seen on TV.

RS At the moment, it’s almost like acknowledging or talking about something is considered a form of endorsing it, or even identifying with it. But if you put something into a museum, for example, it’s not because you are worshipping it; it’s because you want to direct people’s attention to it. ›

JVV Yeah, exactly. I’m presenting something. You can figure this out. It’s not dictating something. And that’s the great thing about making art. But now it sucks because artists are supposed to have opinions on everything. It just drives me fucking nuts. This is the one thing I get so pissed off about: art is the one place you should not censor anything. So that’s why I’m starting this gallery. I want to show art that is not afraid of itself. And it could be old or new or dumb, who cares, but it’s not afraid of itself.

Ross Simonini is a writer, artist, musician and dialogist. He is the host of ArtReview’s podcast Subject, Object, Verb

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