The exhibition Try Explaining How You Feel at Kunsthall Stavanger immediately brings to mind advertising, memes, and commercial design. New York-based artist Jamian Juliano-Villani’s cartoon-like paintings are done in airbrush using a cool palette, creating a smooth finish ideal for the screen. The motifs recycle visual tropes of a carefree America where freedom, self-realisation, and eternal youth are all up for sale. Juliano-Villani, however, harbours no illusion that such old dreams can be fulfilled.
The exhibition is produced in collaboration with the New York gallery JTT and the Milan-based gallery Massimo De Carlo. Dean Kissick, editor of the art magazine Spike, has written a text for the exhibition in which he quotes Juliano-Villani on how she deliberately searches for “the stupidest idea she can think of.” Skillmatics (2021) exemplifies her handling of the trivial: a resentment-inducing click bait – ‘US Doctor Shares How US Health Insurance Companies Shamelessly Screw People Over’ – is written across an image of a punk and a little boy riding a fairy-tale white horse. The child’s wide-eyed naivety and the punk’s do-it-yourself ethos seem hopelessly obsolete under the neoliberal reign evoked by the text fragment, a cynicism which Juliano-Villani reinforces by elevating the meme formula to a schema for the painting itself.
The Trump era in American culture and politics has created a problem for ridicule as a strategy of resistance: what happens when reality comes across as more absurd than the farce? Hal Foster explores this question in his book What Comes After Farce? (2020). Foster sees Trumpism as a farcical historical interlude where truth and justice have been shamelessly set aside and nothing can be taken for granted anymore. In this reality, the revelation of power and abuse has lost its significance, he argues, and art and critique must find new ways to carry out their critical function. His proposal is to intensify the means and devices of farce.
In the Middle Ages, farce was a comic interlude between the acts of more serious religious plays. The genre is characterised by amusing and cheerful content, a fast pace, intricate and unlikely intrigues, caricature and parody. In that sense, Juliano-Villani’s paintings are actually closer to one-liners than to farce. Whereas Two Adaptable Utensils (2021) shows two dog snouts sniffing a soup can bearing the caption “An Old Person,” in the adjacent Caterpillar Ladder (2003) a reference to Jeff Koons’s ladder fitted with an inflatable toy seems to be the punchline. In Does This Slide Or Do I Pull? (2018) a little frog sits on a shiny metallic ladder, staring blankly at the wall where it ought to have cast a shadow. The paintings’ intertextual qualities – such as the accumulation of recognisable motifs and the play of meaning between the images – are what connects them and gives the exhibition a farcical feel. For example, the Koons ladder reappears in the form of a paint-stained step ladder standing in front of a painting of a pinkly idyllic bathroom in which a monstrous poo is climbing out of the toilet (Replace Phosphates Without Compromising Functionality, a Relief, 2020).
Juliano-Villani does not restrict herself to painting: a short video shows a clip of the abstract painter Karel Appel from approximately 1960 as he attacks a canvas with spatulas and cascades of paint. A set of speakers plays the chorus of the 1990s hit ‘I’m Too Sexy’ on loop, the music stopping at the very point when Appel turns to the camera to speak about his craft. Nearby, Juliano-Villani has installed The Arm (2021), a stack of red plastic cups dancing on a table-tennis table in a parody of the American party game “beer pong,” where loutish bros drink beer competitively. Here visitors will also find the painting Robbi Company (2020), a kind of advertising poster for the artist’s parents’ printing house Robbi Promotional Advertizing. Evoking the decor of a prepubescent boy’s room, the poster depicts the company logo hovering above depictions of the moon and the Milky Way. Together, the three works narrate masculine urges for expansion and competition – drives that extend from the education system across art to business and industry.
Juliano-Villani accelerates the artificial and manic features of contemporary culture, its unstoppable will to produce and spread; outer space is the final frontier of this ceaseless ambition for growth. After a few rounds in the gallery, it all seems quite threatening. The triptych bearing the morbid title Some Deaths Take Forever (2014) depicts an armoured hand holding an extinguished candle. The masked figure in Take Five (2018) swings a bat, while the violence takes on a more sexual tone in the painting of a pair of groping hands in The Talking, Feeling, and Doing Game (2021). Juliano-Villani’s inflated farce exposes the destructive forces that hide behind the happy infantilism of commercial culture.