Art Seen: National

PROFILE OF THE ARTIST PT II // JULIA WACHTEL

In Conversation with Tara Plath

Read Pt I of the interview here

Julia Wachtel’s most recent solo exhibition was at Elizabeth Dee, and before that at Vilma Gold in London. Across these exhibitions, there has been a lot of focus on Wachtel’s work from the 1980s. Her upcoming exhibition at the Transformer Station with the Cleveland Museum of Art will be ninety percent new work. A few very early pieces that have never been exhibited will be on view – but mainly, Wachtel will feature two current bodies of work: one of which employs the silkscreens in two strains, landscape paintings and celebrity paintings. The other body of work that will be shown is a series entitled Post-Culture, which are completely hand painted, and do not involve the silkscreen process.

Wachtel and I sat down in her studio to discuss her new work, and the recent prevalence of her work from the 1980s gaining new attention today. Below is a transcription of our conversation, which touches on the way Wachtel employs the visual language of painting and repetition to destabilize the image.

Julia Wachtel paintings at Elizabeth Dee

Ericka Beckman & Julia Wachtel: Works from the 1970s, Installation view, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

Tara Plath: Do you think about the future when making your work?

Julia Wachtel: I don’t really. It is hard for me to feel hopeful about the future. What I do think about is how my paintings can function, to destabilize the process of looking at pictures itself, in a way that creates some awareness of what’s at stake. I am making pictures of the world the way that I see it, more than the way I wish it could be.

TP: A painting like Champagne Life is going to attract people whether they love art or not, because of the celebrity aspect. Do you think it is possible for the painting to function subconsciously, to create that disruption or destabilization even if people aren’t looking for it?

JW: I think people responded to Champagne Life [the way they did] because that painting was like a hysterical “fuck you, media!” Stop cramming Kim Kardashian and Kanye West down our throats and all of this inane stuff that no one should care about. I think people found it funny. To have them [West and Kardashian] upside down, paired with the Minnie Mouse figure, was an incongruous combination. But they obviously all come out of this corporate machine. The Minnie Mouse had a different feeling about it, and I think that is what creates the kind of tension that resists an obvious media retake. What is that cute little sad poignant Minnie Mouse doing in this scene here?

The Minnie figurine had no designation or explanation to it when I found it. It was just a free-floating image I found on the Internet.. It seemed to me to be some kind of bootleg Minnie. The other thing, which is critical, is that there were two of them [Minnie Mouse] and they were hand painted. I am not a machine, and so I cannot make them exactly identical. But I am invested enough in the idea of the duplication to make them pretty identical. You could walk by and think “Oh that is the same thing,” but if you stop and look at it you see that there are differences. The differences between them is the gap where I see my own subjectivity. The subjective position is in the failure of perfection, in the failure of existing in that machine.

TP: Does Trauma play a part in your work?

JW: Beyond this existential crisis that you aptly brought up, I do not really think about trauma. But it is an interesting question, maybe I should. There are traumatic events that are depicted in my paintings; this is Chernobyl right here (referencing painting in studio). That is arguably one of the most traumatic devastating events to ever have occurred. The subject matter may deal with traumatic events, but trauma itself I don’t consider to be the subject of the paintings. I am more interested in the underlying language that makes images readable and that directs the meaning. So I’m very focused on the formal understructure, in the case of the Chernobyl painting, the idea of mutation, minimalism, and seriality. I am very much interested in the grammar – I do not mean words, but the way in which things are constructed, the way in which meaning is constructed. At the end of the day, that is what my work is about. To make those aspects visible, it is really important to employ all sorts of visual cues that refer to the language of painting. It is not just about the content, but about the fact that I am making something, and that the paintings are built. The title of this piece is Mutant Ninja Chernobyl, so there is a kind of cultural mashup, which is something that I have been doing before even heard the term “mashup.” It is a longstanding strategy of mine.

-2 copy

Doughnutville, 1992. Oil, acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas. 22 1/2 x 43 3/4 inches (57.1 x 111.1 cm). Courtesy the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

TP: Do you have anything planned for after Cleveland?

JW: All of the work for Cleveland is done now. The main thing I am working on now is a solo show next spring at Elizabeth Dee. There are always Art Fairs now that insert themselves into the schedule – EXPO CHICAGO and Art Basel Miami Beach – which is kind of a crazy thing. And then I’ll be doing a show at my London Gallery Vilma Gold. I will be in a show of women artists in Spring 2015 at the Saatchi Gallery in London, so that is also on the horizon.

TP: How do you feel about the term “women artists”?

JW: Oh, I am fine with it. If I felt like I was only ghettoized as a woman artist, that would be a problem, but I don’t think that’s the case. In fact this might be the first exhibition of woman artists I’ve ever been in.

TP: I find that there is something a-sexual about your work.

JW: Not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing! The cartoon characters certainly are not sexy! I have been using imagery recently of people considered to be very sexy – Miley Cyrus and David Beckham for instance. But paired with the cartoons, there is a deconstruction that takes place that maybe renders them a bit neuter.  The mass media on every level, even that directed towards children is so overly sexualized. So I guess I don’t need to contribute to that. But if you are saying that my work doesn’t indicate my gender, that it’s not obviously feminine, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.  That said, I certainly see myself as a feminist, just for the record!

TP: It could be very easy to take a “male” perspective or “female” perspective when working with young hyper-sexualized females. You either become the voyeur or you make a political statement about your body or about their body. But instead, you present the images as what they are – without, it seems, taking one hard stance on either side of the line.

JW: It is very easy to simply critique in a didactic way, instead I try to destabilize the image. I do that, to some degree, in the juxtaposition. There are other ways as well. I would not say I am neutral, but I am trying to subvert the obviousness. Even when you deal with Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus, and I am going to do a painting with Beyoncé, these are all iconic, and you can easily fail. It can be really, really dumb to use this imagery. They are the most obvious and the most prevalent images around. That is when I really have to use formal strategies to pull it apart and to create a visual experience that cuts into it, creating not just the easy read to consume it for what it is, but also provide another kind of experience with the image.

-1 copy

ACV2.4, 2012. Signed and dated, verso. Flashe on canvas, digital print on canvas. 46 x 42 3/4 inches (117 x 108.5cm). Courtesy the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.




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Julia Wachtel at the Transformer Station with the Cleveland Museum of Art will run from October 11, 2014–January 17, 2015.

Tara Plath is an artist and writer based in New York City. She currently works at Whitebox Art Center. She holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts with an emphasis in sculpture and a Bachelors of Arts in Visual and Critical Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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