It's hard to dislike Julie Speed, the self-taught surrealist whose macabre oil-on-board visions and bizarre collages currently fill the front galleries at Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art. And doubly so for me, for Speed is everything that a good painter should be. She's talented, and smart, and irreverent, and figurative, with a distinctive, weird and compelling style. Though her pictorial koans are interesting as formal exercises, Speed is primarily a narrative painter, committed to communicating with the viewer, even when the message is intended to be ambiguous.
In 14 oils and several dozen paper-and-gouache collages, she deals with all the burning issues of the day. Literally. Most of the oil paintings, for example, seem in some way to be about religious fanaticism or the events of 9-11; most feature apocalyptic flames, falling bodies and body parts. Other efforts are equally au courant, if not quite so topical. The bulk of the show consists of a series of collages titled "Alters of My Ancestors," in which Speed creatively mutilates cutouts of intellectual forebears and cultural influences. Appropriately, one of the initial collages in this series is an homage to René Magritte, the artist whose shtick Speed most self-consciously emulates. Like the Belgian surrealist, she spends most of her time probing the fault lines of culture: the incongruities between language and fact, the interplay of symbol and reality, the disjunction between signifier and signified. She hits the high points, without getting addled by academic theory. Viewing her work is a little like skimming Cliff's Notes on Claude Lévi-Strauss.
So why, then, is it so hard to escape the feeling that we're being sold a bill of goods?
Part of the problem lies in Speed's peculiar gift. Like the best semi-savages--Henri Rousseau springs to mind--Speed has a genius for creating dreamlike images that tap into the popular id. She scavenges both popular and high culture for images and visual language, and she shares Le Douanier's weakness for pop-culture enthusiasms (in Speed's case, third eyes and such), his attraction to exotic animals and people, his fascination with science and religion. The similarities extend to form as well as content. Like Rousseau, Speed displays a crude knowledge of perspective and a keen reverence for certain art-historical ancestors. And her style features the same awkwardness in drawing figures, especially facial expressions. That's a problem in efforts like "Watchdog," a 2001 canvas that gallery owner Ted Pillsbury suggests presents a "fearsome portrait of a grimacing man in military regalia who shouts in anger." Well, maybe; but I'd have sworn it depicted the half-surprised, half-angry face of a bellhop who'd just placed one carefully polished wing tip in doggy doo.
There are differences. Speed is committed to honing her artistic skills; witness the marked improvement in Speed's face-handling since stylized, cartoonish efforts like 1998's "Blue Boy." And Speed's politics are a lot more palatable to a contemporary audience. She has a fascination with, and a healthy disdain for, authority figures. In efforts such as "Military Science" and "Natural Selection," she points out the ironic implications of her topics. And yet, there is less here than meets the eye. It's not just the sensational nature of Speed's imagery; after all, "Judith with the Head of Holofernes" has always been one of my favorites at the Met. The problem lies in a certain cheap, too-obvious treatment of her subject matter. Take, for example, "Damage," a 2002 canvas featuring, in the words of Monsieur Pillsbury, "a woman [who] casts her eyes upon the viewer with a rueful expression as burning bodies cascade from the sky." An obvious reference to the events of 9-11, the picture itself is vaguely Vermeeresque, featuring a turbaned head at the angle of "Girl With a Pearl Earring" and crude chiaroscuro. The head could also be bandaged, a conclusion supported by the subject's strange yellow garment, open down the back like a hospital gown. It's hard to grasp her point. Is she suggesting she is personally wounded by the events of 9-11? If so, why is there no real feeling of despair? Or is she simply shilling for Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld foreign policy? In the end, it somehow seems less an honest expression of emotion than exploitation, a sort of glib, isn't-it-terrible topicality.
In fact, many of her canvases suffer from a too-cute, precious, god-spelled-backward-is-dog quality. "The Voice of Dog," a canvas featuring a cardinal gazing toward the sky in religious reverie while the small cur in his lap snarls at the viewer, would be but one example. Is it really so daring to observe that the church functions much as the small, vicious canine, "mak[ing] use of fear and intimidation?" That while the cardinals claim to hear the voice of God, the laity is subjected to the voice of dog? Yes, Virginia; evil exists in the world, more often than not masquerading in the guise of religion. So, what's new?
The show consists of such faux revelations, insights that on the surface seem bold but are unlikely to offend your average collector. We're being pandered to, targeted, placed smack in the crosshairs of shrewd marketing minds. Granted, on the day of my visit, this sense was exacerbated by the ham-fisted approach of gallery minions, who seemed to confuse the term "critic" with that of "publicist." Uncharacteristically, gallery personnel declined to provide certain requested slides, on the grounds that they had been instructed to promote only unsold canvases. Not that they were entirely unaccommodating; in the end, I was offered a slide of a rather uninteresting painting "from her 9-11 series"--as if this were some sort of selling point--and a rather pedantic lecture about its symbolism.
Given the sorry sort of bootlicking that commonly passes for art "reviews," it's a common enough confusion. And in Speed's case, the fawning has been extreme, including items in Texas Monthly and The Wall Street Journal. But then, Speed is a hot commodity. The sorry state of the economy and the pricey tags on her canvases notwithstanding--as much as $45,000 for the work of a relatively unknown, self-taught artist--her show is nearly sold out. Two days after the opening, only 24 of 67 works had yet to be spoken for.
One wonders whether Speed would be so popular with collectors if she were half the nihilist she claims to be, if she were truly committed to the empty, all-is-black viewpoint of a painter like Bosch, whose work she seems, at times, to ape. But her work lacks the feel of an authentic meditation on evil, or religion, or death. At best, it contains the superficial, through-the-eyes-of-a-child take on the world's hypocrisy, a weirdness of the sort prized by those who like to consider themselves hip and who collect art. Too much of her work seems cynically calculated to grab attention without quite saying anything new or worthwhile; indeed, in the degree to which she recycles images and rips herself off, she seems closer to the late de Chirico than to the authentic, agonized visions of Bosch.
Her work is, however, tailor-made to appeal to urban sophisticates weary of the angels-on-a-pinhead intellectual debates of culture. It is the visual equivalent of a good pop-culture song: glib and slick, with a good hook, and in the end, not terribly interesting or profound.
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