Art Seen: National

PROFILE OF THE ARTIST PT I // JULIA WACHTEL

In Conversation with Tara Plath

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.

Elizabeth Dee showing Julia Wachtel's paintings at Independent a

Independent, March 2014, installation view (L: Bleep, 2014 / R: Champagne Life, 2014). Courtesy the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

Tara Plath: You have been working in a similar vein for almost three decades now (1980s–today). I like to think of each series as its own timeline, rather than having these more categorical markers of your career. It is like you are building upon each series independently. Do you think that is a product of the ongoing nature of the material you work with – this ongoing mass media onslaught?

Julia Wachtel: There are multiple threads, or series, that I’ve worked on in an ongoing way, with gaps along the way. Other series seem closed to me, although there is no reason I may not reconnect at some point in the future. I’m not sure that it is a product of the mass media, but more a function of my cast of characters that gets recycled over time. That said there are aspects of the mass media that influence my direction. With the advent of the Arab Spring in 2010, the media was flooded with images of mass demonstrations. The imagery connected in my mind with a print portfolio of crowds amassing in political protests worldwide I did in 1990 called “Precariously Close to 5 billion Points of Confusion.”  This led me to pick up the thread of my earlier landscape/history paintings again.

TP: Do you feel that your work needs some time to reflect? With the two recent exhibition of work currently on view from the eighties – is it only twenty or thirty years later that we can really think about whatever was made then?

JW: It’s interesting because there are people in the art world who know my history and had a very positive reaction to seeing the old work being shown again. There was also a new generation of people who had no idea who I was, and were seeing all the earlier work for the first time. The feedback was that thirty years later, it felt relevant. There is not really a sea change in what I am doing now compared to what I was doing back then. I mean, I am older I have a lot more life experience. My choices might be a little different, but the larger paradigm has not shifted tremendously. The one thing that has changed and impacts the work is the Internet. When I started, the Internet did not yet exist. There was print and t.v. media, and I was getting all my imagery from a few select magazines. As I was screen printing the images and I did not want to deal with four-color process –I just gravitated towards magazines that were black and white, like People magazine which was black and white at that time, and Der Spiegel, the German news magazine. “People” provided me with the celebrity imagery and “Der Spiege” with the historical/landscape imagery I was working with.

TP: How selective are you when searching the Internet? Do you go in with an idea?

JW: Sometimes I have a very specific idea, and I go on a directed search and find what I’m after. Other times, I have a very specific idea, but don’t find what I’m looking for. However, in the process, I find other things that inspire me. Other times it can just be something that has a more general feeling to it, because you can plug in anything: “happy” or “depressed person with a hat” or “Miley Cyrus.” There are so many different ways to search, and a slight shift in words can send you to entirely different imagery. For instance I made a painting titled “my room”. I wanted to find a picture that was of a personal space but without any real or obvious reason to be a publicly circulating image. When I googled “my room” I found thousands of pictures of peoples bedrooms, living rooms, etc. But when I googled “my space” it led me to thousands of soft porn imagery.

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Champagne Life, 2014. Oil, lacquer ink and flashe on canvas. 5 panels, overall: 60 x 186 inches (152.4 x 472.4cm). Courtesy the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

TP: With the cartoons, do you have a collection that you mix and match? Or are the cartoons directly responsive to the imagery?

JW: I do have a big collection of these cards, and I will sometimes use them, but not always. Sometimes I am trying to find an image that fits with the other half of the painting, sometimes it is a jumping off point. But keep in mind that I’m not always using the greeting card images or cartoons for that matter. This cartoon (references new work on wall) is not actually from a greeting card but is a piece of clip art from the Internet. It is not always a cartoon; it can be anything that functions as a placeholder for the position of subjectivity. For instance, at Independent Art Fair, I had one painting that featured a figurine of Minnie Mouse, which is technically a cartoon, but it was a painting of a three-dimensional object. I had another one that had a painting of Alfred E. Newman, the Mad Magazine character, based on a collectible figurine. I am working on a painting now which has double panels of  a “Venus” sculpture, a Neolithic object from 20,000 BC.

TP: I read recently, you referred to the characters as “witnesses.” do you see them as a projection of yourself, or as more of a universal figure?

JW: I think both. I see myself as a viewer and receiver of information, as everyone is. I think the fact that it is not just me [who is present] makes it more meaningful. I certainly do identify.

TP: I think there’s a really important quality in animation or cartoons, where you can posit yourself more easily than in another human or photograph. Do you watch a lot of animation?

JW: I don’t, and I’m not deeply drawn to animation. It’s like a dirty secret. I like the cartoons because they have a utilitarian value for me. They are “low class” and the antithesis of the “high class” art object. There is something kind of humiliating and self implicating in them. They display a kind of unprotected subjectivity.

Julia Wachtel paintings at Elizabeth Dee

Ericka Beckman & Julia Wachtel: Works from the 1980s, Installation view, 2014. Courtesy the Artist and Elizabeth Dee, New York.

TP: Champagne Life got a lot of attention at Independent – it made me think of you as, at this point, a scholar of contemporary culture. I think everyone takes in a lot, but if you’re working the way an artist does with all of the material, you’re approaching this subject matter as line of study. You say that because of the Internet things have obviously changed, but do you think the existential crisis, or the human subject, has changed because of the way technology has progressed?

JW: Absolutely, I think there is an existential crisis. We are exposed to so much brutality and so much bad news on a daily basis. The massive scale of information is beyond our intellectual and emotional capacity to process. So we have to filter things out, because we just can’t take in all that. And I think there is an existential crisis in being a conscious and responsible person in the world and having an awareness of the moral issues involved in living a comfortable life in the face of the horrendous conditions of so many people who live on this planet.

Part II of this transcription will publish on THE SEEN.

 

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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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