Meet Jamian Juliano-Villani, the Jokester Painter Who Appropriates, Provokes, and Doesn’t Apologize

Juliano-Villani, who has been accused of improperly borrowing images from other artists, has landed a London solo show.

Jamian Juliano-Villani. Photo courtesy Massimo De Carlo.

The first thing I see when I rock up to Massimo De Carlo’s London space to meet artist Jamian Juliano-Villani is a massive painting of a monster truck crashing towards the vitrine of the tony gallery. “I’m trying to trash the place up,” the 32-year-old artist tells me in a husky smoker’s voice. “But it’s hard.”

Juliano-Villani explains that she wanted to mess with the intricate mouldings on the walls of the gallery’s three-story townhouse too, but that she couldn’t because of the 19th-century building’s historic status. “It’s an upscale place, but you still have to push them,” she says. An animatronic children’s tiger toy sucking on a mechanized dildo upstairs furthers her point. “They didn’t want me to bring this one, but I insisted,” the artist says.

The title of her solo exhibition in London, “Let’s Kill Nicole,” is part of an in joke we are not privy to. The press release for the show suggests it could reference a playground rivalry, and as she bounces nervously around the gallery trying to make last minute changes, the artist jokes that “Nicole” could even be the gallery director Ludovica Barbieri, who is watching on, tight-lipped.

Goats Wearing Uggs

Juliano-Villani was born in 1987 in New Jersey, but settled in New York after graduating from Rutgers University in 2013. Before her career took off, she worked as a studio assistant for various artists including Dana Schutz and Erik Parker. “I learned a lot about the art world from mixing paint in the corner and listening,” she explains.

In the beginning, she was her own dealer. “I did a million fucking group shows, and made a million fucking paintings,” she says. Today, she is represented by JTT gallery in New York and Massimo De Carlo, who has galleries in Milan and Hong Kong, as well as in London. She already has works in the collections of the Hammer, Whitney, and Guggenheim museums. She seems to have a loyal following; according to the gallery, before the London show even opened, all of the works were already on waiting lists.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Let's Kill Nicole (2019). Photo by Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Let’s Kill Nicole (2019). Photo by Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.

Juliano-Villani’s irreverent art (one of her pictures is of a goat wearing Uggs, her version of a “basic bitch;” another is of the artist’s dog, Tim, guiltily holding a bagel knife in his mouth, an image inspired by real life) has an irreverent back story. Jasmin Tsou of JTT, who she calls her original “gallery mom,” first saw the artist’s work on Instagram in 2014 and got in touch, eventually wooing her with a huge case of Starbucks’s bottled frappuccinos. They thought long and hard about which gallery to work with in Europe, and Juliano-Villani eventually settled on Massimo De Carlo, a fellow Italian (the artist is proudly Italian American).

“They’re cool because they trust me and let me do anything,” Juliano-Villani explains of her dealers. “I’m like: ‘are you fucking sure?’ But they really trust the artist’s vision. When they come to the studio, they don’t tell me what to paint.”

Appropriation Station

Juliano-Villani’s parents are commercial printers, so she grew up surrounded by reproductions. Her paintings in London are appropriately dream-like image mashups inspired by everything from jokes to “mad-libs” filled out by drunks in bars. She freely samples found images and works by other artists, and projects these onto her own paintings, improvising connections as she goes along.

The resulting pictures are full of dark humor, absurdity, and trauma. “My paintings are like car accidents, kind of,” she says. “There’s something that draws you to them, and you don’t know why. They are uncomfortable, there’s something visually off about them. I think it’s some kind of sense of déjà vu, if anything.”

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Crunchie Boy, My Son, (2019). Photo by Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Crunchie Boy, My Son (2019). Photo by Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.

The artist sometimes gets in trouble for borrowing images and copyrighted materials. In 2015, she was accused by artist Scott Teplin of using not only the typeface but also the exact phrasing of a mural he painted at a New York public school for a work she showed at Gavin Brown in New York. Juliano-Villani, who posted an image of Teplin’s work on her Instagram weeks before the accusation was made, never denied his claim. “Everything is a reference,” Juliano-Villani told artnet News at the time. “Everything is sourced.”

The London show is also full of appropriated images. Some come from a Danish outsider artist and psychiatric patient called Ovartaci; others come from the Austrian artist Christian Ludwig Attersee. There are also elements taken from ad campaigns by Nestlé.

But the artist is not worried about legal challenges. “My work is transformative, and it is all about things having multiple lives,” she says, adding that if she ever does face legal complaints, she has more than enough people willing to fight in her corner.

Throwing Out the Trash

As we talk, Juliano-Villani jumps from topic to topic, and nearly always has something in her hands, whether it’s a coffee, a cigarette, or (later) a glass of whiskey, neat. She points to one of the works, a ghostly war painting. “I did that one last night.”

Although she says she is constantly painting, she only finishes around 15 or 20 works a year, editing the rest vociferously. “I have no problem throwing something out that doesn’t work,” she explains. “I could bring them all these other paintings and make a shit ton of money but I don’t want to, because I don’t feel them.”

She doesn’t take her art-world success for granted, but as her market value skyrockets, she wishes some of the work could remain accessible. “Once you reach a certain price point, you hit a cap and normal people can’t afford your work anymore, and that’s kind of shitty,” she explains.

There’s also the added pressure of living up to increasing monetary value. “It’s harder to make a fucked up painting that you enjoy for $100,000 than it is for $15,000. It’s so blinding, so distracting that you want to make it worth that much instead of just doing your idea.”

Jamian Juliano-Villani, "Let's Kill Nicole" at Massimo De Carlo, London June 21 – September 21, 2019. Photo by Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, “Let’s Kill Nicole” at Massimo De Carlo, London June 21 – September 21, 2019. Photo by Todd-White Art Photography. Courtesy Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong.

The higher price points also bring in a different collector class, and we briefly touch upon the ongoing debate in the art world over which sources of museum funding are appropriate, and which ones are not. Does she care about who owns her paintings?

“Everyone who has that much money probably did something fucked up to get it,” she says. “But you have to pick your battles. It’s all messed up. We’re basically generating more garbage and getting paid for it. It’s okay to be angry at institutions for certain things, but all money is coming from something fucked up. I’m part of it too. I’m making paintings and I’m making profits.”

The artist also says that to survive in the art world, you regularly have to offer up something new, or, as she puts it more bluntly: “Shit’s supposed to change.” The works on show are more pared down than some of her earlier, more dense and graphic stuff. Next up, she says, she wants to delve into video art, and make some short movies.

“There are so many ideas that won’t look good as paintings,” she explains. She has a handheld film camera, and has been experimenting with building sets and digitizing found footage from mini-VHS tapes sourced from eBay. But whatever she puts her hand to next, the art world should prepare to be hit with the full force of a monster truck.

Jamian Juliano-Villani’s exhibition, “Let’s Kill Nicole,” is open through September 21 at Massimo De Carlo, London.

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