Skip to Content
Cultural Capital

How Jamian Juliano-Villani Sees ‘It’

One of New York's most prominent young painters says, "I don't want to have a style at all."

Jamian Juliano-Villani at O’Flaherty’s, with a projection of her painting “Penny’s Change” (2015). (Hell Gate)

At the opening for Jamian Juliano-Villani's show "It" at the Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street, people are talking about the 37 year old New Yorker's paintings, but they're also talking a lot about her. "She loves reference," one visitor whispers to a companion. "Is she around?" asks another. Juliano-Villani is nowhere to be seen, but near the entrance is a life-sized self-portrait in which she's staring down the barrel of an imaginary camera, with Elvis right behind her; she's reaching back and grabbing his crotch. This sly, self-referential cheekiness extends to the rest of her show—one painting is just of the words "Steamy Little Jewish Princess," in a style approximating the logo for the grocery store chain Western Beef. 

The Gagosian show is a huge step up in prestige for Juliano-Villani, whose star has been rising consistently for years, both for her own paintings and her stewardship of O'Flaherty's, the gallery on Avenue A that's made headlines for its daring exhibitions and its stunty programming (they once featured an "open call" for artists, resulting in a show with over 1,000 paintings, mostly from unknown artists, and a bucket full of Coors Light) since 2021. Juliano-Villani has become a name brand in the city, a tastemaker and a favorite of the art media. "We’re lucky to have her as lovers of art during a time where images are far too taken for granted," Annie Armstrong, a writer at Artnet, said. 

(Maris Hutchison / Gagosian)

While studying art at Rutgers during the mid-2000s, Juliano-Villani painted hard-edged geometric abstractions. As her career has progressed, her work has most often featured vibrant borrowed images Frankensteined together. Now, her paintings are typically of anything she can imagine, often grafting sumptuous, realistic figures onto images pilfered from anywhere, from a kitschy cartoon to something you could only imagine while tripping on DMT. Her last solo show, "Mrs. Evan Williams" at the now-closed JTT gallery in the Lower East Side, included a painting of an unnameable creature that looks most like a vampire bat with a human face crawling out of a shit-stained toilet, gazing at the viewer. (She named it "Replace Phosphates Without Compromising Functionality, a Relief.") Now, she says, "I don't want to have a style at all." 

Her Gagosian show culminates in another self-portrait, where Juliano-Villani's eyes are cat-like and jewel-toned and staring at nothing. Her face is pressed against the canvas in a way that looks like it's warping it, and she's seemingly emitting light from her forehead like a bodhisattva. In her paintings on display in "It," most people are thin, blank figures that look like mannequins, somewhere between humans and furniture. Celebrities she has captured, on the other hand—Elvis, Basquiat, Kissinger—are human, icons rendered in uncanny realness. With her self-portraits, she's seemingly lumped herself in with the latter category, her name already mononym-ready: Jamian. It's the world as she sees it, more or less unadorned: surreal scenes captured by flashing lights, all from Juliano-Villani's awed point of view.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, "Self-Portrait", 2023. Oil on canvas, 102 x 76 1/2 x 1 1/4 inches. (Photo: Rob McKeever / Gagosian)

"Fuck if I know" is her consistent answer to the question of what she's doing next—both on the phone with me, and at O'Flaherty's discussing "It." As Juliano-Villani tells it, the future is a void for her, an empty expanse from which anything could emerge at any time. That's a quality that's in her paintings as well, which Juliano-Villani described as less cinematic and more like what you see when a strobe light is pulsing: constant motion, but captured in a state of sudden, nearly violent arrest—"a car crash." To Juliano-Vilani, a painting is only a representation of a single moment of encounter, one that occurs outside of the continuum of time. She gets an idea—a mechanical creature crawling down a spiral staircase in a mid-century modern home—and needs it captured now, before the thought decays. This is what her paintings allow: thoughts, fragmented as they are, rendered for a split second.

Forget a future or a past, with their sense of overwhelming implausibility, the paintings Juliano-Villani has built her name on hardly even seem to have a present— but with "It," she said, she's using the space afforded to her by the Gagosian as a "playground." 

"Instead of looking in, I'm stepping back," she said. "'It' just has a different attitude than my other work." Putting on other peoples' shows at O'Flaherty's, she noted, has helped her understand her own goals "in a clear, focused way." 

Despite her prolific output and the work of putting on some of the city's buzziest arts shows, Juliano-Villani remains remarkably accessible. She gives out her phone number without hesitation. "Text me," she emailed when I reached out to her, adding that she's always at O'Flaherty's on the weekends, and I'm welcome to swing by any time. 

About a week before "It" was set to debut, Juliano-Villani stopped responding to my texts asking for an interview. I still had a lot of questions for her. So I decided to Uber to O'Flaherty's, and there she was, the "steamy little Jewish princess" herself, surrounded by a crowd and quirked up and wearing sunglasses that looked like a visor, next to her long-haired co-gallerist Billy Grant, who was DJing Pop Smoke off of an iMac. It's near the end of the opening for the new show at O'Flaherty's, of the 37-year-old sculptor Donna Dennis's mini-houses. Dennis is around as downtown characters mill around to the drill music, looking vaguely lost.

Suddenly, around 9 p.m., Juliano-Villani's gravelly voice began echoing through the gallery, coming closer and closer to the back room. "EVERYBODY OUT! EVERYONE OUT!" she yelled, all five feet two inches of her exploding into the room. "Sorry, I'm drunk," she hiccupped. 

When I do get her on the phone, it's 10 p.m. on a Sunday. By then, I had seen her Gagosian show, which has a more steady and reflective feeling than her previous work. Her paintings are always compared to internet memes, because of their juxtapositions—literal juxtapositions of impossible scenes and objects, and emotional juxtapositions of absurdity and weightiness. But she rejects and refutes that interpretation whenever it comes up. "It's not a joke," she told me of her work. "I think people thought the work is supposed to be flippant."  

Still, she maintains a scrupulous ambiguity when anyone comes anywhere close to the "meaning" of her paintings. "I don't like talking about the work, that's why the show's called 'It,'" she said. The daughter of parents who ran a screenprinting business in New Jersey, Juliano-Villani told me she was surrounded by uncanny images everywhere she looked, and copies and copies of them. One of the few adjectives she'll use to describe her work is "democratic," which I took to have some sort of meaning with regards to class politics. (Juliano-Villani herself refuses to go that far, but she did say that with "It," she's "moving up to Jack Daniels.")

Still, I had another question about her show. At the opening, right after Emily Ratajkowski dipped from the gallery, I struck up a conversation with a young artist in his 20s, who told me he'd heard a rumor that some of Juliano-Villani's pieces were "made in China."

Jamian Juliano-Villani, How Jamian Juliano-Villani Sees "It""Sloppy Joe's", 2024. Oil on canvas, 83 1/2 x 127 inches. (Photo: Owen Conway / Gagosian)

That helps explain why the figuration looks almost photograph-like in some of her works, and then in others, the paintings are less refined, as if done by different painters with different ideas and objectives. I'm not sure what it means, what it's supposed to mean, or whether the rumor is supposed to be a part of the show, and neither is the person who tells me. It's true that artists relying on others is nothing new: Jeff Koons, Damian Hirst, and Kehinde Wiley all use assistants, and the discourse about it has spiraled for decades now. But why rely on Chinese artists in particular? Is that supposed to mean something about supply chains and consumer culture? I figured the best way to understand is just to ask, so I called her.

She hesitated for a beat, which was unusual in my conversations with her. "I'll put it this way," she began. "I think there's a long painting tradition of having assistants. I'm just following a painting tradition. And every painting I do is different."

"Is there any kind of meaning to that? Are you trying to say something with that?" I replied.

"Purely conceptual," she said.

"Do you want to talk about how that process worked?" I inquired.

"No, because I think it actually is slightly distracting from the message of the show, which is kind of…I don't think it matters, but for me it's more about the paintings and what the show does," she replied. "And I don't like fetishizing material. Process-based art has never been my thing."

She added, "I don't like spelling things out for people because, as Billy always says, words are prison bars. And I also did the show to be self-explanatory. But it's supposed to have you think about these things." Here's what I got: Using the "Chinese painting mill" as it was described in an interview with Surface Magazine, is one step closer to the immediacy of the image. The object was never "it," only the moment is: when she sees it, when you see it.

"But how can people think about it if they don't know?" I asked.

"Does it matter, though?" she said. "You're just looking at the painting."

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

MAGA Loons, Drill Rappers, and Unlikely Voters: The Never-Ending Trump Rally Comes to the South Bronx

"If Trump is here, and he's asking for a second chance, I can't judge that."

May 24, 2024

Finally, NYC Gets the Bird We Deserve

All hail our new beady-eyed queen, Astoria the wild turkey! And more news to take you into the long weekend.

May 24, 2024

Is the NYPD Solving Crimes? Who Knows—Their Last Published Clearance Data Is From 2022

City law requires the NYPD to report its clearance rates quarterly. Under the Adams administration, it just…stopped.

See all posts