Next in our series of round-robin interiews, I introduced Jan Wandrag to my awesome friend, Juliet Jacobson. The title of this post is borrowed from one of Juliet's beautiful large format pencil drawings. I first met Juliet last winter in her graduate studio at NYU—I was immeditatly drawn to the sensuality of her work. I invited her to create a special piece for issue #6 (make sure to check it out if you haven't seen it yet!). It's fun playing match-maker—Jan & Juliet hit it off and I'm excited to have them both on TheBullet. – hugs
Jan Wandrag: Hi Juliet,
Juliet Jacobson: Hi Jan—How are you?
Jan: I'm good, you? So you're at work?
Juliet: Yes. I 'm working on the Jimmy de Sana Estate. Laurie Simmons is the estate's trustee and I've been working out of one of her studios for the past six months or so.
Jan: Sounds great. How did you get that job? Seems perfect for you as far as day jobs go.
Juliet: Last fall my friend Adam Putnam curated a show called "Blow Both of Us" and included a number of JDS images in the show. When he mentioned to me that Laurie might be looking for someone to help her organize the estate I got really excited.
I wrote Laurie about my enthusiasm for the work. She responded to my interest in the JDS stuff as an artist. I feel really really lucky to get to work with this material.
Jan: The images of JDS you sent me are great. But better yet is how well they relate to your own work ... do you find working with it inspiring?
By the way, feel free to cut the chat short if Laurie storms in demanding a Mocha Frappuccino ;-)
Juliet: Laurie's actually been the most wonderful boss. I've really enjoyed working for her. And, yes, I find the material really inspiring and interesting.
Because the source material I work with is termed gay and because so many people have voiced concerns about what it means for me, being a woman, to use these images I thought engaging with a gay photographer's work on a really deep level would be a good idea.
And some people have been concerned about the way I've used images that symbolize death along side images of gay sex—because it reminds them of the AIDS crisis or a negative valuation of gay love/sex. JDS died of AIDS in 1991 and, you know, made really sexually explicit work for most of his career. So, in the beginning I wanted the job because I wanted to try to be responsible to the imagery I'm working with.
Jan: I was going to ask you about the implied violence and morbid themes. Some of the images can almost be read as a warning against gay sex. I have a real fear of snakes, so in my mind they do become these menacing phalluses. But then you pair it with such beautifully drawn boys and roses and it becomes more complex. I'm interested to hear more about your relationship to sex ...
Juliet: Before I made sexy pictures of boys I was making sexy pictures of girls in much the same visual vernacular. The source images for these pictures were mostly 60s and 70s soft porn magazines like Penthouse. Making these drawings and paintings I thought a lot about how the women oscillated between subject and object. For me they were really unstable and fascinating images. The women's bodies in these old magazines were treated much like bodies (both men's and women's) are today in advertising. Initially when I substituted boys for girls I just wanted boys' bodies that were treated the same way: vulnerable, available, on display, but also with a little distance and romance.
So when I started making these pictures they were really about a kind of mediatized sexuality and not about eroticism that you might experience interpersonally. To answer your question, these pictures were conceived as a response to a culturally pervasive sea of images where sex is ubiquitous—though I would say the modes of sexuality deployed are few. When I started using boys, my relationship to the images changed dramatically. Boys can be my imaginary love objects in a way that girls aren't. The idea of idealized romantic love got all tied up with sex and this is where all the really heavy symbolic imagery came in.
Jan: Do you have a boyfriend currently? What does he think of your interest in these boys? Does he look like one of 'em? People always expect you to be with someone that looks like your pictures I've found.
Juliet: I love this question... Yes, I have a boyfriend. He's really into my interest in boys and has been really supportive of the work. He's super smart and we have enough cross over in terms of our interests that we've been able to read books together—which I love! We read Judith Butler together and he introduced me to William Haver. I've convinced him he absolutely must read this Michael Taussig book next.
He does not look like my drawings. He told me he would never ever be in one when we started dating.
Does your boyfriend look like your pictures?
Jan: No, my boyfriend doesn't really have a stereotypical boy look like a soldier or skater. Maybe a little of both, come to think of it. When I'm shooting I'm looking for a specific type of guy, not always the same. He is cute though and that's important in my pictures too.
Maybe your boyfriend doesn't want to be in your drawings because he doesn't want to be nude in an artwork ... or is it that he doesn't want to be perceived as being gay?
Juliet: He's a total Victorian and would never be naked in public.
He doesn't exactly have a tough guy image. I would hazard a guess that he's been mistaken for gay once or twice.
Jan: He's an anthropologist?
Juliet: No, an artist.
Jan: Oh, sorry. You think it's better to be with a fellow artist? I thought an anthropologist would be a good match for you. You're kind of doing some art anthropology with the JDS stuff.
Juliet: Actually, my best friend is an anthropologist! Her investigations are a lot more rigorous than mine though.
Most of my thinking about JDS, contrary to what I expected when starting to work with the material, has been about the way he treats bodies in images. I haven't thought so much about situating these in a political or social history outside the contemporary moment. I've ended up really admiring his treatment of the body where it's first a beautiful object and ethnicity or gender is a later concern.
Jan: I think it is interesting that your source images are probably all shot by gay guys in the seventies. You're acting as a medium in a way resurrecting these images of boys that had a much more short-lived purpose in mind. I wonder how you think using a live model or photographs you commissioned would change your relationship to the work? Direct interaction with a body as object ...
Juliet: I think a lot about using models. The longer I work with this material the more specific my ideas about what I want—I get.
On the other hand I feel like it would mean something really different. My ideas about what art is and should be really come from looking at Pictures Generation artists. Something about engaging with material that is at large in a cultural arena seems important—though I just use it as a cipher to focus on ideas about identity and personal experience. I think there is something important for me in translating this distant photo from the past that you can hold in your hand into a life size image. I think the time spent tracing over every little bit of a life size body makes these drawings really personal for me. It's a really satisfying way to fulfill the desire for possession this kind of image creates.
Jan: I can imagine you sitting in your studio for hours working on one body part. It looks like you're always very focused on the boy's dicks. Sometimes you would leave a face unresolved but I never see any unresolved penises ... why?
Juliet: That question actually made me laugh out loud. You are right; the penises are usually the most labored over part of my drawings.
I think this kind of treatment of penises owes much to religious iconography where the erect penis symbolizes male fertility and creative powers.
Usually when the penis is symbolic like this it's called the phallus—a highly contested term in Psychoanalysis and Feminist redresses there of. Usually in these systems the possession of the phallus—a symbolic representation of male generative powers is comparable with divinity. Some people think the woman is it, some people think the man has it and the woman wants it. It's basically always deployed in a heteronormative framework, which requires a privileged and a secondary term.
I think this system sucks, but I think boys and their penises are great. My hope is that lavishing attention on the boys' penises gives a positive valuation to a symbol of masculine creativity, as an organ grounded in pleasure in the imagination, and as a symbol of agency in the Other. Representation of the penis like this draws on a history that goes back to the Greeks, with figures like Priapus.
Jan: So you're saying some people might say this is you're way of possessing a phallus. Quite an intimate bond you have with your images. How do you feel about exhibiting and selling them, letting them go—some castration anxiety?
Juliet: I haven't sold any of the really big ones yet—and those are what I get really attached to. I'm just starting to show and am really excited about it. There's a show that opens September 20th at Syracuse University's Warehouse Gallery and I'm working on a show for November in London. It's a two-person show at gallery called Ritter/Zamet.
Marlene McCarty is the other artist. She's a long time idol of mine. I'm a big fan of the work and also have always been inspired by her integrity as an artist. I'm a little intimidated by the pairing but really excited too.
Jan: Sounds really great. Congratulations, that's amazing to be in a two-person show with your idol.
I look forward to seeing some of the installation shots from that...
Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed our chat. Anything happening with the JDS images?
Juliet: Thank you! And actually, yes, I think I just found the original transparency for a 1979 piece called Dishwasher.
Jan: Will there be a JDS show?
Juliet: Right now a portion of the estate is being donated to the Fales Collection. I'm moving the last 6 boxes in tomorrow. I hope there will be a show. It would be great to see this work in a presentation space.
Jan: Definitely. Keep me posted.
Juliet: Awesome Jan. Thanks so much. It's been really fun to talk to you.
(Photographs included here by Jimmy de Sana, courtesy the Jimmy de Sana Trust. Images from 101 Nudes (1972), Eggs and Sofa from Submission (1977 - 1978). The final image is from transparency and was used for collage in the unpublished folio Salvation.)