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Winter 2002

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Enivisioning objects of desire

by Barbara A. Melville

     Life is not exactly a bowl of cherries for painter Julia Jacquette ’86. It’s more like a dish of brownies topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.

     At least, that’s the kind of lip-smacking vision Jacquette has depicted in the paintings that made her name in the art world. A selection of them at Skidmore’s Schick Art Gallery this fall revealed sweets and savories galore: two-tiered cookie platters, hot-fudge sundaes, meat loaf loaded with ketchup, and cold cuts garnished with emerald parsley. Each dish was rendered in glossy sign-painter’s enamels, each floated alone on a bright background like a sign on a grocery truck, and most were overlaid with startlingly sexy texts such as “If I Could Only Touch Your Perfect Body.”

Julia Jacquette ’86 takes a moment for doodling in her studio.

     Critics have feasted on the nuances (from nostalgia, to body image, to gender and eating issues) in Jacquette’s deliciously deadpan blend of food and physical desire; her work has earned great reviews, solo exhibitions here and abroad, and star turns in group shows with titles like Food for Thought: A Visual Banquet, Food Matters, and Eat! She has exhibited at the prestigious Holly Solomon Gallery in New York City and, last year, at the Museum of Modern Art.

     “What fascinates me is how to make paintings about wanting,” says Jacquette, who is tall and calm and wears a small silver stud in her nose. Her food paintings were born of the realization that she, a true citizen of American consumer culture, was “constantly wanting objects, material things, and situations other than my own. Desserts seemed the perfect visual metaphor for this condition.…In this sugar-coated culture, I was never at a loss for subject matter.”

     Enter her large, bright East Village studio with an offering of almond croissants, and Jacquette will promptly devour one with the gusto so evident in her paintings (even those featuring wedding gowns and bouquets, rather than food, look good enough to eat). Settling near a sunny window, Jac-quette explains that she was not always into the semiotics of scrump-tious. At Skidmore, it was her ab-stract painting that won campus admiration and a summer at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. And her postgrad studio-assistant job—rendering realistic images for trompe l’oeil artist Richard Haas—seemed a recipe for frustration, until the early 1990s, when she began dreaming of painting food in a highly precise, realistic style. “Lucky for me,” she laughs, “those years working for Richard kept my chops up!”

     For authentic models of classic dishes to portray, she mined 1950s and ’60s magazines and cookbooks. “To tell the truth,” she says, “I love tofu and arugula, but as a symbol of all that’s delicious, I went for hot fudge.” She added the texts “to put a spin on the visual images—to cut the sweetness—by equating the desire for food with the desire for another.” (That two-tiered cookie platter, for instance, murmurs “To Inhale the Scent of Your Skin as I Kiss the Nape of Your Neck.”)

     “Once I overheard a couple of guys at a show reading the words out loud and saying, ‘Whoa, she’s just really objectifying us!’ Well, yes,” Jacquette replies with a wicked smile. “But I’m trying to offer an alternative language, something that speaks to everyone without using sexually explicit imagery.”

     Why use sign-painter’s enamel? “You get a beautiful sheen and opacity, like a lollipop. You want to lick it.”

Jacquette shows her intricate studies of lacy wedding gowns.

     A passionate New Yorker, Jacquette grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and “always loved the city. As kids, my brother and I went all over on the subway and bus. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was only a mile away through Central Park. I went there a lot. I still do.”

     After attending Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art, she chose Skidmore for “a well-rounded education with a really good studio-art education built right into it.” Then came an M.F.A. at Hunter College, a city studio, and then the great leap from studio assistant to rising art star when an artist recommended her to Holly Solomon, one of the top art dealers in the world. “My first exhibition with her went very well, and later I became one of the artists she represented.”

     It wasn’t long before Jacquette reached beyond food to explore other objects of desire, including body parts and gestures. For instance, she painted multiple examples of fashion models’ eyes, women’s hands, and flirty gestures taken from magazine ads and vintage movie stills, arranged in a grid pattern. Says Jac-quette, “Those images want to teach us how to behave. I’m enamored and repulsed by—and riveted to—those images.”

     Last year Jacquette designed a series of lighthearted paper products for a café at the Museum of Modern Art. Each plate, napkin, and cup sports an image—hot fudge on vanilla cake, a banana split, a T-bone steak—and bears a fragment of the sentence “Every Moment of My Day /I Think of Pressing My Lips Against Yours /While I Hold Your Body Against Mine.” “That was extremely exciting,” says Jacquette, laughing. “So many people ended up drinking coffee out of my artwork!”

     In her new white-on-white oil paintings, Jacquette is painting multiple images, such as bridal-gown torsos or multi-tiered wedding cakes, on sixteen-panel grids, one panel at a time. “When a panel is finished, I go to my pile of photos clipped from bridal magazines and pick the next image. It’s a game of chance within an incredibly strict structure. I try to stick as close to the photo in the magazine as I can.” And that’s very close, literally sequin by sequin. At once detailed and sweeping, lush and modestly puritanical, the white paintings almost overwhelm the viewer with a sense of longing sublimated in seed pearls and silk.

     With her painting, part-time teaching, and a couple of exhibition possibilities in the wings, Jacquette says, “Right now, I’m in a good place. I’m in that unnamed territory between ‘emerging’ and ‘mid-career.’ Of course, things don’t get easier. You have to exert the same amount of energy to maintain your reputation and the quality of your work. On my bad days, I think, ‘This is the last good idea I’ll have, and I’ll be shown to be a one-trick pony.’”

     But outside the studio, there’s always the bustle and spark of New York City, “the capital,” as Jacquette puts it only half-jokingly, “of all things beautiful and desirable.” And it is such a delicious inspiration for this artist of human desire that “on my good days,” she concludes, “I feel that a lifetime is not enough to make all the paintings I want.”

Staff writer Barbara Melville, a former newspaper arts reviewer, frequently covers the “arts beat” for Scope.


© 2001 Skidmore College