Julia Wachtel on Visual Pleasure and the Silent Image

Since the end of the 1970s, Julia Wachtel has sifted through the dregs of the world of images. From greeting cards and magazines to the multitude of digital images online, Wachtel silkscreens his source materials onto canvas alongside painted panels to construct his rhythmic montages. His paintings – sardonic, loud, biting – will soon be featured in two solo exhibitions: “Believe” from April 27 to June 4 at the Super Dakota in Brussels; “Accomplishment” opens April 16 and will be the first show at Helena Anrather’s new space on the Bowery in New York City.

WHEN I STARTED TO APPROPRIATE IMAGES, the digital world did not exist. I limited my research to a few sources: magazines like People and The Spiegel, as well as greeting cards. Now, with the Internet, you have immediate access to countless photos. So in that regard, my work has become more complex. Easier and harder in equal measure. I consider myself an editor. The composition process within a given painting is a form of editing, but of course I also edit from the potential field of all available images. It’s a bit daunting to step into a realm outside the realm of endless possibilities. But in a way, I don’t think it’s any different from any choice an artist makes. It’s always a commitment, whether for a line, a color or an image. Once I have decided, my approach is to use the simplest and dumbest techniques in manipulating the source material and painting composition. Obviously, the editing tools I use when composing the work, such as Photoshop and InDesign, are extremely powerful. It’s very easy to get caught up in the design effects that are so easily at your fingertips. But I try to be very disciplined, resistant to the more sophisticated functions of these programs; I want to be as basic as possible, almost as if I were a cave painter using modern technologies.

I want to place my viewer in a space of extreme familiarity, but removed from the original context. For one of the panels of the table Fulfillment, 2021, I horizontally flipped a printed sign from an Amazon fulfillment center that has the Amazon logo of an arrow below the word accomplishment. This panel sits next to another that has the same graphic but in the correct orientation, joining the arrows together, like Rorschach, in a smile. To the right is another panel with a cartoon of a happy reindeer whose simple, linear smile mimics that of the mashed Amazon. Flipping the image also blocks the word “accomplishment”, disorienting it into an unreadable sequence of letters. My intention in using a simple device like the flip is to generate multiple readings. There is an emotional resonance in this kind of gesture. Using very smooth, almost embarrassing content was for me, initially in the 80s, a way of admitting my own complicity in the world of images. I wanted to denounce the fallacious idea that one can ever stand entirely, objectively outside of culture. The humor also works to disarm the viewer, hopefully creating a sense of identification with the images in question and a more direct connection to the painting. Currently, I focus on imagery that celebrates the aesthetics of abundance, consumption and pleasure – that shimmering surface underpinned by a reality of instability and inequity. Through my manipulation of these kinds of images, associating them with cartoons that function as witnesses, I try to maintain a tension between the shiny facade and the psychological cracks that disturb it.

Throughout my work, I investigate the construction of emotion and identity through the mechanisms of mass culture. From an economic point of view, I cannot compete with the production of corporate images, but it is important for me to welcome the viewer with an immediately engaging and pleasant experience, almost like a musical hook in a song. pop. I want there to be something that viewers can quickly connect to, but then for them to realize that things may not be as sweet and benign as they first appear. That’s all I can really do: put a question mark in people’s minds, suggest that these images work in very harmful ways. Obviously, I love the pictures, but I also understand the cost of it all.

Briana R. Cross