LU’s Dishman hosts Julie Speed exhibition

Julie Speed (photo by Danielle Levitt)

Julie Speed has an eye for detail — sometimes more eyes than you’d think.

The Dishman Art Museum will host “Julie Speed: East of the Sun & West of the Moon,” Sept. 25 though Nov. 13, which gives visitors the chance to make frequent visits.

“Her work is challenging which makes people want to look longer,” Dishman director Dennis Kiel said. “There’s so much to see that you have to spend time with the work.”

Speed’s complex works incorporate painting and collage to create images that are slightly askew from the expected, causing us to question what exactly is going on. The Marfa-based artist coined “pararealism,” with “para” meaning “alongside.” Several of her figures, such as in “Judith Reconsiders,” have three eyes. Partly, she said, to get more than one expression on the face.

“But also, I love that head-achy feeling that it gives you,” she said. “It’s my cockamamie theory that the reason you get a head-achy feeling is because they’re realistic paintings, so your brain has made the assumption that humans should only have two eyes. Your brain is having to question its own assumptions. 

“I think a huge lot of the damage that’s done in this world is because people mistake their bred-in-the-bone assumptions for the truth.”

“Judith Reconsiders” by Julie Speed

Speed said she has collected old images since she was 18, visiting flea markets and yard sales and junk stores, and she collages images from old books or prints that have been damaged in fires or floods. One friend donated an 1877 Gustave Doré Bible that was damaged in a Galveston flood. She used some of the images in “Deep Water.”

“I saved the pieces from the Biblical flood — the illustrations for the flood — and then I use them in the piece about the flood,” Speed said. “I saved those pieces for, I don’t know, 15 to 20 years or something, until I found just the right place to put them in.”

“Deep Water” by Julie Speed

Another example of Speed’s repurposing is the Japanese woodblock prints that appear in many of her paintings. Printed on paper made from Mulberry bark, they are subject to being eaten by worms, making them candidates to be cut up.

“I wouldn’t mess up a good one, because part of my game is I’m not allowed to wreck a good book — it has to be already pre-destroyed,” she said. 

People think Speed has an idea and then illustrates it, she said, but that never works for her. 

“It has to be a puzzle,” she said. “With collage, I’ll start with pieces and that’ll give me an idea of something. Then it’s kind of like a math thing.”

Each painting will take four to six weeks to complete, which means different things, such as news events, will send the painting in a new direction.

“I always seem to, right before I’m through, wipe out a whole background and make a new one,” she said. “I never know exactly where I’m going when I start. And if I do, then I’m wrong.”

“Bridge” by Julie Speed

Many figures in Speed’s paintings allude to historical styles. The figures in “Bridge” are reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s 14th-century paintings. Growing up in a Catholic neighborhood of Chicago, her family had Time Life’s World’s Great Religions collection. Speed would show the books to the neighborhood kids.

“I’d bring that book out there and open it up to the devil picture, and everybody would go and run away,” she said, laughing. 

Some books had fold-out page of Indian gods and goddesses and Speed would copy them. One 16th-century engraving showed two people being hanged and set on fire.

“That thing just fascinated me,” she said. “My dad worked at Alcoa, and he would come home from work and sometimes he and my mom would talk in hushed voices about somebody being fired. For a long time, I lived in terror that my father would be fired from work, because I thought that meant they would hang him and then set him on fire.”

Dishman Art Museum director Dennis Kiel hangs work for Julie Speed’s “East of the Sun & West of the Moon.”

While Speed’s imagery is often strange and even unsettling, there is an undercurrent of sly humor.

“Oh, I crack myself up,” she said. “It’s like the worst stuff that happens — it’s like, if you don’t laugh, if you don’t make it funny, then you kill yourself.”

Living in West Texas is Speed’s way of letting go of the worries of the world, she said. 

“As long as I keep the radio off, then I can just worry about whether my garden is going to get hailed on, am I gonna get attacked by a javelina, and make sure not to step on a snake, stuff like that,” she said.

Speed comes from a family of sailors, so it might seem odd that she has lived in the Texas desert since 1978. But she said there is a common theme between land and sea.

“It’s the horizon,” she said. “I remember the first time I drove out (here), it was absolutely flat. And I had this revelation, like, I am really relaxed here because no one can sneak up on me.”

“East of the Sun & West of the Moon” is a doorway to Speed’s imagination. Relax and let the details sneak up on you — the devil is in the details.

The Dishman Art Museum is located at 1030 E. Lavaca on the Lamar University campus. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and Saturday, noon-4 p.m. “Close-Up Room,” a companion film, will play in the Dishman Auditorium.

For more, visit lamar.edu/dishman.

This story first ran in the Sept. 24 Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise.

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