Editor's note: The following essay is rekeyed and reprinted on February 25, 2003 with the permission of the copyright owner, Julie Speed. The essay appears in a 44 page full-color catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Alters of My Ancestors, held January 18 through March 30, 2003 at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas and at earlier venues. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or would like to obtain a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Art Museum of Southeast Texas directly through either this phone number or web address:
Julie Speed and the Art of Transformation
by Edmund P. Pillsbury, Ph.D.
No virtue or vice escapes the irreverent eye of Julie Speed, the prodigiously-talented, Austin-based surrealist. Mining the past for images that fire her imagination to create ambivalence and incongruity, she produces finely-crafted visual puzzles -- metaphoric expressions, if you like, for her cynicism, wit, and even at times iconoclasm about life and people. At one moment hilarious, at the next ominous, her art offers endless food for thought. Not unlike her mentor, the Belgian painter Réné Magritte, whose portrait crowns the series of thirty-six collages known as The Alters of My Ancestors, she distills messages through expropriation and juxtaposition, gleefully introducing layers of nuance and double entendre. Moreover, her technique weds twentieth-century collage with that of fifteenth-century Northern realism, an anomaly that makes her reliance upon engraved images from the eighteenth and nineteenth century both apposite and poignant.
To understand The Alters of My Ancestors requires a dose of etymology. When encountering the title for the first time, one invariably assumes that there has been a misprint. A series of ancestor portraits might plausibly bear the title "altars" since the portrait is the ultimate vanitas, and images of ancestors often served as the altars upon which families worship. The insertion of the word "alters" is both playful and ingenious. Not only does it suggest ambiguity and mystery, but it establishes the artist's purpose to change or make different, literally to alter something, and thereby transform its nature. Thus, the esteemed Noah Webster becomes The Writer, a wild figure with hair ablaze who cavorts with red devils while glancing at a whiskey bottle stashed in a library shelf. Or, a standing soldier brandishing a sword and epaulettes irreverently personifies The Field Marshall, stripped of trousers and transformed by the artist's deft brush into a beguiling female.
The thirty-six collages comprise a compendium of "altered" characters from the past, expressing in varying degrees the artist's love of irreverence, incongruity, and iconoclasm. One can read the images and draw from them a variety of responses. The artist is hard-pressed to explain what her work means, or even how she made it. Inevitably, one thing seems to evolve from the other. An engraved bust portrait might possess a pose, expression, or costume of interest. Yet no sooner has the artist seized upon the engraved source than she begins to alter it. Collage elements are culled from a vast inventory of printed matter. She applies them and goes on to employ her superior skills in the traditional art of rendering a likeness and accenting it with vivid colors. Only when the original engraving has been sufficiently transformed, or properly altered, is it considered finished.
In the range of subjects, different impulses prevail. Iconoclasm underlies the unforgettable image of Cabbage Head, who proudly displays from his lap at a forty-five degree angle an enlarged screw; the robed physician in The Yellow Cup, who becomes a decadent plantation owner, or colonialist, with dominos, rats, and a yellow teacup; or the strident open-mouthed officer in The Edict, who promulgates his ideology in scenes of death, damnation, and the destruction of the world a la Gustave Doré.
A milder tone of irreverence permeates certain other collages. For example, Military Science depicts a man relying upon imaginary rocket projectory formulae rather than scientifically-proven methods. Man Hat shows a young man surmounted by a phallic headdress comprised of two cabbages and a raised cannon. The Dilettante is a full-length robed male exposing himself to the viewer as he grasps a letter in one hand and a book in the other. Truth and Beauty extols the Italian brandy grappa as the inescapable path to those two so elusive goals of the artist. Finally, The Naturalist sports an elaborate, imaginary headdress of green moss, strawberries, fish, roses, shells, and a big bee, while a frog climbs up his shoulder.
Incongruity prevails in other works. For example, in Mr. Livingston's Id, a freakish young man bears a hat composed of a piece of Georgian silver from which rises a serpent. In The Sisters, two friends, the O'Connor girls, practice tap dancing in a graveyard atop a sarcophagus, a true dance of death. In Mrs. Garfield's View, an elder lady (the doomed wife of Lot?), perched on a rock and flanked by a serpent, gazes back upon a burning city.
There are an infinite number of messages coded in The Alters of My Ancestors. The meanings are often disguised and multivalent. The individual compositions invite the viewer to explore a world of fantasy and make-believe that stretches the imagination. The significance of the whole enterprise lies in its wit and sophistication. Not since Joseph Cornell has there been an artist who has so cleverly exploited the expressive possibilities in the art of assemblage. In sum, much can be expected from an artist whose fascination with life and the forces of knowledge is only exceeded by her sensibility and genius as an imagemaker.
About the author:
Edmund P. Pillsbury is C.E.O. and Managing Partner of Pillsbury and Peters Fine Art in Dallas, Texas. He previously served as director of the Kimbell Art Museum.
Please also see Alters of My Ancestors (2/25/03)
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