by Myrna Zanetell
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Marfa artist has solo exhibit at EP Museum
The scintillating El Paso Museum of Art exhibition, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” showcases 48 works by artist Julie Speed, who is based in Marfa, Texas. Imaginative and thought provoking in content, Speed’s surreal paintings and collages find their source in her vivid and unusual creative style. The exhibit opened in November and continues through April 7,
Born in Chicago in 1951 and coming from a “hands on” creative family, Speed had an early inclination to pursue her own artistic interests. She attended classes at the Rhode Island School of Design before dropping out at age 19 to reevaluate her destiny. She spent the next few years traveling the U. S. before eventually settling in Nova Scotia, Canada. During this period, she earned her keep with such diverse jobs as house painter, horse trainer, writer and farmworker. Her marriage to Fran Christina, drummer with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, eventually brought the couple to Austin, Texas.
By this time Speed realized that her true passion was art, so she began to teach herself to paint. She was influenced by the work of Belgian surrealist Rene Francois Magritte, an artist whose images challenged observers’ preconditioned definitions of reality. Speed now creates her own unique imagery, often combining the mediums of oil paint, gouache and collage.
Finding inspiration in the wellspring of her rich imagination, Speed has become known for a signature style that often include faces with a third eye, strangely arranged or detached body parts, and other departures from reality. Although her paintings could be called figurative, she begins not with drawings, but by intricately arranging geometric shapes.
“I start with the composition, and more than any other element, the composition drives the narrative. I may take days and even weeks arranging and rearranging various sized shapes until suddenly they fit together in just the right pattern.”
Many of the paintings featured in the exhibition are finely layered oils or gouache combined with paper as a collage.
“I have been collecting paper since I was about 18 and now every drawer in the house is filled to overflowing,” she said jokingly. “A good portion of my creative time is spent in searching for just the right pieces.” She notes that they all have different weights, colors and textures – qualities that often determine the final outcome of the imagery.
Speed also uses illustrations from old books as a source. In this regard she has two hard and fast rules. The first is that the paper must come from already ruined books. She lists floods, fire and children as her best allies in providing such material. Worms have become another ally, she added. “They simply can’t resist the mulberry bark paper of the Japanese woodblock prints I use.”
Her second rule is never using a computer to enhance her work. Any changes are made by drawing using a very fine brush.
The exhibition title “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” actually refers more to Speed’s artistic process than to the land in which her imaginary characters live. The artist shares, “The determination of east over west is influenced by the colors I use. For example colors are much stronger and richer in the east.”
“The Horse Soldier” is a prime example. “The soldier’s vividly patterned uniform in greens and red is set against a warm golden background. The uniform is comprised from pieces from Japanese woodblock prints. For his uniform, I chose military illustrations some of which featured horses. These were what inspired the title.”
The story behind the creation of “Eating Warhol’s Lunch” is equally fascinating. “In the process of arranging a series of geometric shapes, two became heads — one a man and the other a woman while others reminded me of bowls. This brought to mind the painting ‘The Bean Eater’ by Carracci, but the paper I was using was red, not brown like beans. Thinking of what they could be eating, I recalled the color of Campbell’s tomato soup. In turn finding the soup caused me to think of Warhol’s famous image of a Campbell soup can and that inspired the title of the painting.”
EPMA Curatorial Assistant Kevin Burns, in explaining the decision to present this exhibition, noted, “One part of the EPMA mission is to represent the work of Texas artists. Speed has resided in Texas since the mid 1970s and in Marfa since 2006, and her work truly represents the very best of Texas art.”
This exhibition, which is Speed’s most comprehensive to date, represents works produced in the last five years, many of which have never been exhibited before.
“The exhibition has been organized into two parts,” Burns noted, “The first, which showcases her paintings in oil and gouache, focuses on characters that are outside of time and place. The second section, entitled ‘Worlds Colliding,’ is dedicated to collages in which the artist melds eastern and western traditions. One example of this approach is her piece ‘Deep Water,’ a gouache and collage that focuses on a figure immersed waist-deep water. The collage features pages from a water damaged copy of an 1877 bible illustrated by Gustave Dore.”
In her catalog, Speed comments, “The tattoo sleeves of the figure in ‘Deep Water’ incorporate Dore’s illustrations of the Genesis flood narrative. That makes it a painting of a flood, made with images of a flood taken from a bible that drowned in a flood. The figure’s internal organs are a map of the Middle East and her breasts are an augmented topographical map of the grounds of the Leavenworth Penitentiary that I painted together. Finally if you look closely at the bottom of the picture you can see a harbor scene with oil rigs and a refinery in the background of a flooded city.”
As part of the exhibition, Speed has designed a three-channel video and sound installation called “The Close Up Room,” which includes photos of her working space in Marfa plus completed works and works in progress, and even plays the same music she enjoys while working at her Marfa studio.
Latina Arte exhibition
The Hal Marcus Gallery will shine the spotlight on artwork created by women with a Latin American background in “Latina Arte,” the gallery’s first all-Latin female exhibition. Opening Dec. 6 and hanging through Feb. 28, the exhibition will showcase a diverse offering of paintings created by Teresa Fernandez, Carmen Navar, Romy Hawkins, Martha Arzabala, Leticia Luevanos, Lillian Sandova, Erica Zamora and Isabel Olivares.
“We are defining Latina artists as those whose art is influenced by their cultural backgrounds,” Marcus said. “Some were born in Mexico while others are second generation; all speak Spanish and would be considered bi-cultural.
“Because the Latin culture is an inescapable reality, it is important to educate ourselves with the question of what it means to be from Latin America. Latin American art should not necessarily be thought of as a narrative that is entirely separate from that of the United States, but rather as one that is shared.”
Haydee Alonso, the new director at the Hal Marcus Gallery and who is also a Latin artist, adds her own perspective on the exhibition: “There is no better time to showcase Latin American Art, especially from the perspective of women, than during these times of crisis. It is easy for us to try and decode the differences between American, Latino or Chicano; especially from a ‘fronterizo’ perspective. With our Latina Arte exhibition, we hope to cultivate an understanding that all of these entities are shared.
“The medium and style used by all nine Latinas vary from mosaics, to watercolor, 3D artwork and acrylics; yet all the artwork is connected through our experiences in the border,” she added.
Myrna Zanetell is a freelance writer
specializing in the visual art
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