Texas artist Julie Speed’s work features intriguing—and sometimes disturbing—images that provoke questions in the minds of her viewers. In the new book Julie Speed: Paintings, Constructions, Works on Paper, written by Elizabeth Ferrer and Edmund Pillsbury and published by the University of Texas Press, the artist sheds some light on her mysterious works in a question-and-answer section. What follows is an excerpt of her revealing comments.
What was the first painting you remember?
There were two images from Michelangelo’s LAST JUDGMENT that especially singed my 6-year-old brain. One is of a condemned sinner, newly arrived in Hell and just beginning to comprehend where he is and where he will be spending a hopeless eternity. He clutches his left hand over his left eye in denial while his right eye remains frozen open in horror. The other is of Charon, the pop-eyed demon ferryman who is whacking a cowering herd of the damned with the oar of his boat. When the neighborhood kids came over to play, I used to take out the book with these pictures in it and drag it outside where I would open it up to that page, whereupon we would all scream, slam the book shut, and run away only to creep back and do it again. It was a big thrill, and it helped that all the neighborhood kids were Catholic (my family is undecided) so they could fill me in on any gory details that Michelangelo might have left out.
What are your influences and why?
The “Why?” of what influences me, I don’t know. I wander through a museum or a book, and particular pictures just jump in my brain and stay there for life, like Giovanni Bellini’s DOGE OF VENICE or Botticelli’s PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG MAN. I can’t imagine never coming back to those two.
Other artists whose work that I look at again and again are Cranach, Mantegna, van der Weyden, and Bacon. Francis Bacon is a particular favorite and has been since high school. With Goya, it’s the “Caprichos” and the “Disasters of War” that really hit me. I aspire to the sheer excellence of the painting of Degas, Whistler, and Vermeer. I empathize with Joseph Cornell and am a big fan of Kasimir Malevich, Bill Traylor, René Magritte, Juan Gris, Van Gogh, and Lucien Freud. I’ve stolen a lot from Australian Aboriginal paintings and early Russian and Byzantine icons. I collect old fairy-tale books and count them as strong early influences along with the graphic works of Max Klinger, Edward Gorey, and Maurice Sendak (his Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Higglety Pigglety Pop in particular). I love Persian and Indian miniatures and collect them when I can afford to. I’m crazy about Balthus because I can look at his work again and again and keep getting more out of it each time. I think the definition of great art is that it has no expiration date.
How do you come up with ideas for your paintings?
There is an experience that I have on certain occasions when I am able to access a “place,” which all my life I’ve referred to as “behind the veil.” On some days there is a little hole or “rip” in the veil, and pictures, words, and ideas from “behind” are able to float through to my side where I can grab them and try to hold on to them. That is the place where I come up with the ideas for my paintings. Usually it happens when I’m in the bathtub or long-distance driving, but on really good days the pictures just keep coming one after another no matter what I’m doing. Then they don’t come again for a while, but I keep them stored up on bits and pieces of paper to last out the dry spell.
One time, years ago, the rip disappeared for several months, long enough that I had given up on it and thought it was gone forever. When it returned I knew instantly that it was back at least a day before any pictures actually came out of it. There is a surprising physicality to the rip itself, and its presence or absence is something I can look around for and find or not find inside myself, just as though it were a real thing—like you would look around a room to try and find the cat. I can encourage it to stay or drive it away by how I conduct my life, but in the end, also like a cat, I really have no control over it at all. My sense of that “place” where I get my ideas is that it is outside of and separate from my personality or intellect.
What is your relationship to surrealism?
Pararealism might be a better description than surrealism for my oil paintings, “para” meaning “alongside” rather than the “over,” “beyond,” or “above” that “sur” implies. The situations depicted are usually somewhat unlikely but not necessarily impossible.
How long does a painting take? Do you draw a painting before it goes to canvas?
I start with a rough sketch on scrap paper—mostly just to decide what shape to make the board. After preparing the board or canvas I usually spend a couple of days doing a detailed underdrawing. When the pencil or charcoal drawing is right, then I start painting with thin layers of umber or gray and white acrylic, slowly building values and volumes until I’ve gotten the shapes rounded out and placed where I want them. When I’m pretty happy with that, then I start layering in oil color, sanding with extremely fine sandpaper between layers. A painting generally takes a month or two from start to finish, usually working a 10-hour day.
Where did you learn to paint?
I had a really great art teacher, Narcisso Maisterra, for two years in one of the high schools I went to, but we didn’t get to paint too much in oils because there wasn’t enough time. However, he encouraged me and introduced me to the work of Goya and Francis Bacon. After high school I went to Rhode Island School of Design briefly, but they didn’t teach classical oil painting there at the time so I dropped out. I should have found someone to teach me because it would have been easier and less painful than trying to teach myself.
Is there some significance to the color blue in your paintings?
I don’t think of colors as signifying anything, but I do get crushes on them. I have been serially infatuated with Prussian blue, cerulean blue, ultramarine blue, and cobalt blue. For a while it was raw sienna, and then raw umber. I think I even wrote a poem to raw umber once, and spent months squinting my eyes at every shadow in a “find the umber” obsession. I found it everywhere.
I also love the way oil paints smell. Strangely, so does Vito, my parrot, who will occasionally take it into his head to start ripping up brushes and tearing open tubes of paint. He knows quite well that this is bad behavior, so he scolds himself while he’s doing it, muttering, “No, Vito, no! Bad bird!” with the evidence right there on his beak.
The “extra eye” or misaligned eyes in many of the paintings are very effective (and disturbing). Can you say more about them?
People often think and feel several things at one time. Even when I’m totally focused on my work, I can feel the shadows of other thoughts skittering around the edges of my concentration—or perhaps I might be having a serious discussion with someone about a book that we’ve both read, but another part of my mind is busy imagining him naked or worrying about nuclear waste buildup. The extra eye lets me show several expressions on one face at the same time. That’s one reason.
Another reason for the extra eye is that occasionally I like to force my brain into questioning itself. There’s a dislocated headachey feeling that this produces. Your brain is trying to square what your eyes are seeing (a human with three eyes) with its (your brain’s) assumption that humans have two eyes. My cockamamie theory is that periodically forcing your brain to question its most dyed-in-the-wool assumptions (even in this small way) is a useful exercise.
There seems to be little joy in your paintings. Is this intentional as a theme throughout your work?
I am dumbfounded that anyone would see my paintings as joyless. I enjoy painting each tiny hair on someone’s head and every blade of grass in a field. I think that painting details does for me what meditation does for other people. If I’m not able to paint for more than a week or two I get cranky and start getting nightmares, but luckily I’m now able to paint almost all my waking hours so I’m one of the happiest people I know.
Adapted from Julie Speed: Paintings, Constructions, Works on Paper, published in May 2004 by the University of Texas Press, 800.252.3206, www.utexas.edu/utpress.
Speed is represented by Gerald Peters Gallery, Dallas, TX, Santa Fe, NM, and New York, NY, and Etherington Fine Art, Vineyard Haven, MA.
Featured in January 2005