Julia Jacquette: White Paintings
Michael Steinberg Fine Art
526 West 26th St.
New York, 212.924.5770
Mar 5 – Apr 3, 2004
Sometimes things change so gradually we don’t see it at all until we first look away and then, returning our gaze, do we find that nothing is as it was. This can be the case with places, people or things – a little bit here, a tiny bit there, and suddenly everything is changed forever. A common experience for most of us; yet the accumulation of nearly imperceptible alterations into a new reality can have uncanny effect.
Julia Jacquette is one of those artists who make the smallest of changes from one body of work to the next. Many of her shifts are so subtle that one would have to be very astute to notice them, even in works done a few years apart. What a shock then to see her recent exhibition at Michael Steinberg Gallery where, after a particularly long hiatus between solo exhibitions, all of those tiny steps have added up to one very large jump.
There is, of course, the growth in technique. Jacquette has grown over the years from a young painter with adequate skills to a mature painter of exceptional technique. That a painter should, via long experience with their materials, become ever more proficient makes sense, but as it is not a given among today’s artists, it is worth mentioning. I’m not one of those who believe that painting is all about technique (especially with young artists). However, if painting matters, then ability of the artist to tune and align their technique to their content would logically lead to more potent artworks.
Conversely, while being a good painter may make one a good illustrator, it does not necessarily make one a good artist. As Jacquette has always mined illustration for subject matter, the line between rendering, image, and content is a pivotal issue in the understanding of her work. Indeed, her earliest works presented this three part dialogue in fairly unadorned terms.
A typical painting from that time might be of an intricate dessert, such as a Napoleon, presented on a plate dead center in the composition. The surrounding area would be a solid color devoid of perspective, while just below the plate would be a short, simple hand painted caption along the lines of “your eyes”. Think early Pop art with a more overt sexual agenda, with a dash of Magriette thrown in for good measure.
Jacquette eventually dropped the text, but her interest in found images, specifically those used in advertising, intensified. The works grew larger, and she began to break them into grids. Works from this period might be composed of twenty hands or sixteen eyes or thirty-six sets of lips – all apparently lifted from fashion illustrations. It was as if the artist was creating lexicons of consumerist images, while the loving care that went into each painting left no doubt that consumer number one was Jacquette herself.
The eight main paintings in Jacquette’s most recent exhibition continue to make use of the grid, advertising images and even, in some cases, desserts. They are, in short, superficially identical to the artist’s preceding works. Yet even a cursory viewing leaves the viewer with a far different impression than the early works, and one is sent scrambling to ascertain how, if so little has changed formally, what is responsible for such a radical shift in perception?
The answer resides in Jacquette setting up a greater juxtaposition between two aspects that one might naturally assume to be mutually exclusive. Specifically, the new paintings are far more abstract, while simultaneously the imagery has become more precise and thematically layered.
In explaining how the artist pulls this off, it is easier to start with the abstraction which is, to be honest, the result of a clever slight of hand. As was the case with the earlier work, these paintings are made up of grids. Inside each square in the grid is an object, and the same type of object fills the entire painting. For instance, one painting is all cakes; another painting is all bouquets, while another is all dresses. What Jacquette has done differently, though, is to enlarge each image so as to make it appear as a detail that fills its respective box. The result: identity is retained, but contours are destroyed. More importantly, not only is the overall form of the discreet object negated, it is replaced with the outline of its container, the grid, and made to butt up against related, identically manipulated images on all sides. Whereas the works that came before presented their grids as self contained chapters, the grid fragments in the new works now form a highly abstracted, unified whole.
The narrative layering of the imagery is more subtle, but ultimately functions in a similar manner. Again, as with the earlier works, Jacquette’s overarching concept remains the same and she continues her playful exploration of desire and consumption using found images from advertising. The image selection, however, has become more tightly focused. As the titles suggest – “White on White (Nine sections of wedding cake)”, 2001; “White on White (Sixteen kinds of flowers), 2002; “White on White (Wedding Dresses) II, 2002 – the series’ subjects are unified by the color white (a formal tongue-and-cheek evocation of both Sargent and Ryman) as well as theme. These are not just cakes, flowers, and dresses, but wedding cakes, wedding dresses and bridal bouquets.
As Jacquette was recently married it might, at this point, seem clever to assume a personal agenda on Jacquette’s part. To do so risks underestimating the artist’s intent – a long running and broad cultural commentary – and definitely under appreciates her wit and humor. Look closer and we see that besides the bouquets, the decorations on the cakes and dresses are flowers as well. The artist has, in fact, painted flowers and representations of flowers in every painting.
Jacquette levels the imagery via her choice of a single, unifying, “white on white” palette and floral imagery. In putting everything into a comparative grid, she has effectively flattened the meaning of icons that are supposed to represent a special moment for our culture. Not a wedding cake, but wedding cakes, not a bride but brides; each thing special, but not unique. And it can be taken further, for it is not just the pastries and the bouquets that are being equated, but the brides as well. Together they are all beautiful, sweet, and luscious – not to mention packaged, commodified, and sold.
Previously, Jacquette would entice viewers with clever images and pointed questions. Seduction via butter cream brush work is now her preferred form of attack, while her subtext, like a worm in an apple, remains hidden.