‘I Have No Idea How This Is Going to Go:’ Jamian Juliano-Villani Makes Her Gagosian Debut

Jamian Juliano Villani, Self-Portrait, 2023.

Jamian Juliano-Villani was due for a rebrand. Since blasting onto the New York scene a decade ago, the 37-year-old painter has occupied a narrow niche in the art world’s psyche. She’s the loud, chain-smoking, spray-tanned, Jersey-accented imp. She says out loud what other people only think, but mostly she speaks her mind. Her persona is as much of a topic of conversation as her paintings, which have been characterized as “absurd,” “irreverent,” “chaotic,” “cartoonish,” “tasteless,” and “ugly.”

The dozens of canvases Juliano-Villani has produced are all of those things, but they aren’t the sum of it. Below the profane surface, she is a feverish cultural critic, an overachieving athlete of an artist, and a devoted champion of her peers. The latter is most evident in her work with O’Flaherty’s, the East Village gallery she founded with Billy Grant and Ruby Zarsky in 2021, where she has (re)introduced artists like Christian Ludwig Attersee, Kim Dingle, the late Ashley Bickerton, and most recently Donna Dennis to the New York circuit.

The new venture was not the only novelty for Juliano-Villani in the past few years: She's also started working with Gagosian. That collaboration will be consecrated tomorrow, when she opens her first show with the gallery, “It.” The canvases on view, all made in the last year, are as combustible as ever, but Juliano-Villani knows something has changed. A Gagosian white cube is obviously a charged space, and the artist has taken that responsibility as a chance to think about “the bigger picture.” The effects of that reflection are still brewing, but the show’s debut and reception will surely be an indicator of what to expect from her in the next decade.

To mark the occasion, Juliano-Villani sat down with CULTURED to talk about cosplaying herself, finding salvation in the form of Ernest Hemingway's Key West, and why she’s due for a visual breakthrough.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Spaghettios, 2023.

CULTURED: Jamian, you’ve low-key been with Gagosian for a few years, and this is your big debut. What has the move to the most powerful gallery in the art world brought out of your work? 

Jamian Juliano-Villani: I view things in cycles. I feel that's how the body or the brain rejuvenates itself. Working with Ashley [Bickerton], and having the gallery over the past three years totally changed my framework of how to look at a gallery and what a show means. I deserve to finally be comfortable doing what I want. Before it felt like I was on a treadmill. I saw Ashley die doing this, and I'm like, “I've just got to do what I want regardless of what people want from me or what they think my style is.” Everyone always tells me I have a style, but the whole point of my work is using everyone else’s fucking style to write an essay. It’s DJ sensibility. The other thing is having this opportunity; paintings transform in [a Gagosian space.] This [points to the gallery around her] is just as important as the art. I feel like I’m paying more attention to the bigger picture.

CULTURED: To your career?

Juliano-Villani: No, just to the work. Like overall, how does it look? Instead of looking at the fucking fetishization of the detail of painting. I never wanted to do that in my work. I was always just about the image. Now I almost view these things as, like, quick icons. Almost like stickers. Conceptually there’s a lot of shit built in, but it just works instantaneously. It’s just guttural.

CULTURED: You came to art through music, and you worked as a music critic for The Brooklyn Rail in a past life. What’s the sonic ecosystem that you associate with the works in this show?

Juliano-Villani: I’ve been listening to a lot of Christian Ludwig Attersee’s music. He did like 50 Christmas albums; they’re out of control. Then I like having different YouTube videos on at the same time. Even if it's super subliminal, that's really important to me. And a lot of background noise, like TV. I really do need other sound on, or else I can't focus. I have two different TVs in my apartment.

Portrait of Juliano-Villani by Zoe Chait.

CULTURED: You mentioned Ashley Bickerton introducing you to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s band, Gray, and that being an important influence in the painting you made as an ode to Ashley, which shows Basquiat sitting in a chair. 

Juliano-Villani: That’s the thing that won me over for Basquiat. Everyone has artists you revisit. I still don't really care that much about Basquiat, but I respect and relate to the cult of personality thing. It's also a pastiche because all artists are kind of like props of identity. I know that's what I'm being used for.

CULTURED: You’re one of the most visible painters of your generation. People project a lot onto you.

Juliano-Villani: People have opinions. You’ve got to rebrand. I did as much as I could with the work I was making before. I couldn't figure out a way that I was still excited to make them better with all that information. I was fatigued. I was so bored I was fucking with other artists’ work as my work.

CULTURED: What has time in the studio looked like for you recently?

Juliano-Villani: I’m alone in the dark, sitting on the floor, playing cello—or trying to. So dorky. It's more meditative. Did you hear that Lil Jon guided meditation album that just came out? That's a good reference point.

CULTURED: Other than Ashley and Billy Grant, [who Juliano-Villani runs O’Flaherty’s with], what conversation partners have been crucial for you in this shift?

Juliano-Villani: Matthew Barney. I respect him so much. His pace is so different. I'm learning basically every time I do something with anyone. I have to meet them in the middle. Donna Dennis especially, her pace is different. Attersee too, we barely even talk. We just get it, you know?

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Tuxedo, 2023.

CULTURED: You’re painting your own likeness in this show, which you’ve rarely done. How did that feel?

Juliano-Villani: Almost all of the paintings in this show feel like versions of myself. I've been cosplaying for 10 years. It's exhausting. I'm supposed to be entertaining. I'm supposed to be drunk. I'm supposed to be cursing. I'm supposed to be abrasive. I'm being tokenized as my own person. It's nice to actually be able to show people like, “This is a really thoughtful person who's been busting their ass for 10 years.”

That's how I feel … I've always been into the democratic version of art. Everything can be intimidating in terms of taste. It’s like, finding something that can actually work because, the Kissinger painting, for example, where the fuck is that gonna go? It would destroy someone's apartment. It's supposed to go into an institution. It can't exist elsewhere. That's why the Elvis painting looks great so cheap.

CULTURED: That’s also the way you talk about clothes, like what can you get away with being cheap.

Juliano-Villani: And what does cheap mean? Who cares! It’s efficiency. Like, why would I be extra unnecessarily? People make sculptures in bronze. It’s like, “Did you really need to?” The thing was cardboard. Why do you make a bronze cardboard box? If I could just do the cardboard box, why wouldn't I?

CULTURED: The word taboo often comes up in press releases and media around you. What does that word mean to you in 2024?

Juliano-Villani: I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I can’t. If I did, I'd be locked in a box. I made a specific painting a couple of years ago that was showing at JTT, and we had different conceptual opinions on it. I was just kind of like, “You don't have to like it, you don't have to show it, you don't have to sell it. But I can't be told what I can and cannot make.” Art is one of the only places in the world where you can be fucking freaky. This is the arena here.

CULTURED: In the arena, what do you think you’re fighting against right now?

Juliano-Villani: Myself probably.

Portrait of Juliano-Villani by Zoe Chait.

CULTURED: How has O’Flaherty’s changed the way you work?

Juliano-Villani: You know when you see a timeline in a history book? I kind of think of it as a sine wave. Instead of doing a painting and then something really crazy next to it, we get to do that with art shows. We know how to ping pong it so everyone's fucking stunned every time. It's like a bitch slap. We have to counteract the shit we just did.

CULTURED: What was working with Donna Dennis on the latest show like? How did that conversation start?

Juliano-Villani: A year and a half ago. I was looking through a book; I think it was called Fabrications from like 1983. I was just sitting on the floor in my studio in the dark, fucked up, and in this giant book, I saw two little pictures of her work. It just stuck with me, and I kept going back to it. I was trying to get to her for a year and she wasn’t having it. And then I finally got her on the phone. She's kind of like Attersee; they speak with very little words. I'm too much of an anxious fuck to do it, but I would love to act like that. They’re very confident. They've also seen it all. The shit they know would probably make my head spin. I’m a sponge, and I’m learning from all of these different people.

CULTURED: Your work is both a reflection and a cipher.

Juliano-Villani: It’s an homage and a destruction at the same time.

CULTURED: You're both kind of elevating something by putting it into a painting and belittling it.

Juliano-Villani: Right. So then, what is that? It’s nothing. It’s just a thing. It’s a backdrop for real life.

CULTURED: What do you want to see more of in the art world right now?

Juliano-Villani: I would like to have more control because I think I could do a lot of cool shit for people. I would like to be inspired again. But I also like being ahead of the game. I was an athlete growing up. I don’t like winning: I like running.

CULTURED: How do you want to be seen as an artist?

Juliano-Villani: People are stupid, and they assume. They don't know I've been fucking cosplaying for 10 years. They have no fucking clue. This is the cartoon version of me. It's like all up here [points to head]. People think that my previous body of work is flippant or a joke. I would not kill myself to make a bad joke a painting. That's the misconception. It frustrates me when people talk about memes. I'm like, “How the fuck is this a meme?” I'm just aligning and going just as fast as the Internet. That doesn't mean I'm influenced by it, maybe it's influenced by me. All the paintings are emotional.

Jamian Juliano-Villani, Sloppy Joe’s, 2024

CULTURED: What kind of emotions are you looking to evoke with these paintings?

Juliano-Villani: Honesty, love for art, purpose, and simplicity.

CULTURED: What ideas are you grappling with or navigating right now? Are you reading anything that’s been a breakthrough?

Juliano-Villani: I’m trying to take images that read exactly like a bowl of SpaghettiOs and get to where I can look at them as a totally abstract form. I don't know what that looks like yet, but I'm trying to formulate it in my head before I paint it. I'm hoping to have some kind of sober, psychedelic visual breakthrough for painting. I know it will happen in the next two years. I don't know what it is yet, but there's got to be something. It’s probably something so stupid. It's probably like in the room. But also I've been reading [Ernest] Hemingway because I went to Key West.

CULTURED: What’s he helping you think through?

Juliano-Villani: When I was in Key West, I was like, “I want to live here, period.” I also like that the local drunk wrote so many books. I like how someone so articulate is also so fucking retarded. He couldn't find his way back to his house on a fucking island. He had to have his house next to the lighthouse so he could stumble home. I would love to be the drunk person in the fishbowl living my life expressing myself. It really spoke to me.

CULTURED: What energy are you channeling for the show opening?

Juliano-Villani: I hope people like the show. I have no idea how this is going to go, which is kind of the cool part. I wish there was a fucking booth with a one-way mirror, and I could just look at everyone else. I would love to just be getting fucked up here with security cameras looking at everyone. That would be sick.

"It" will be on view from March 16 through April 20, 2024 at Gagosian in New York.