Julia Haw was a very good painter before The Western Veil, but to my eyes she's an even better one now. Her latest body of work was instigated by the sudden death of a close friend, leading her through a year of questioning, shedding, and redefining. The paintings and drawings of The Western Veil are varied in tone and technique but held together through a continued fascination with the veil and its ability to conceal, protect, repress, adorn, and support.
The Western Veil both relies on Haw's strengths as a figurative painter but also confidently relieves them of duty in order to arrive at visual spaces more abstract and gestural. Some of the paintings emit electric evidence of the artist surprising and confounding herself. It's a bold, heavy show that left me inspired to learn more about its development. Despite her impending travel plans, Julia graciously agreed to sit down with me on a rainy Monday morning to talk through her recent process and progress. The following are excerpts of our ranging conversation.
I'm sitting across from Julia at Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits, scarfing down a biscuit and considering going back to the counter for some pie. We talk a little bit about the allure of the pie, and dessert in general. Julia reveals that she's given up sugar recently.
Adam: I aspire to, at some point, try to give up sugar. It's definitely one of my vices. Like, when I'm in a crap mood, I will eat a donut.
Julia: I used to eat a whole stack of waffles. I had a Belgian waffle maker at home, it was a nightmare.
And then after you eat it, you just want more. Hours later. Or, twenty minutes later. [laughs]
Yeah, there's a big argument between the tongue and the stomach, I think.
But I really didn't intend to continue [the sugar detox]. I set out to do it for a month, but at the end of the month, the desire was gone. And I think that in the act of taking something away, or taking away your ability to have something, just by sheer will... you don't have to worry about it anymore.
Yeah, exactly, whereas if you were eating a little bit of it, you'd have to really think about it.
For about a month I started to impose all these restrictions on myself, which is something that I do [periodically], it's very cyclical. I'll just take something away. Now I'm in this amazing place of balance, which is good. I don't really have to add or take away too much now.
I wanted to talk to you now because I didn't know a lot about your work prior to The Western Veil, though I had seen some of it. During your talk at the gallery you touched on some of what had really changed between your prior work and now. Particularly interesting to me was the way you dropped out patterning, that there was less repetition. It just feels like there was palpable growth between the prior work and The Western Veil.
I was just like, "whoa"...
I really let it go. I won't say a part of me died, because I view a lot of pieces as bridges: a lot of those works are going to be filler, or shit, and you have to go through it. You have to go through them to reach new territory. Resting in work that is comfortable or familiar, people like it, it's aesthetically pleasing... that's great, if that's what you want. But I have a problem with that comfortable state, because there's no room to grow. And isn't that one of the most beautiful and exciting parts of being an artist? Learning through your own process.
I want to talk a little bit about the name. I thought a lot about it. After I saw some images of the work, but before I actually saw the show, I was thinking about the "western veil" and I had my own definition established. After seeing the full exhibition I realized it wasn't as simplistic as I was thinking. It seems like the veil is almost like a fabric that combines thoughts, because it means very different things in different pieces. I'm always looking at other people's work and then reflecting on my own process, you know? One of the things that impressed me was the continuity of The Western Veil despite its range. It wasn't like you made the table piece over and over again. The work is really varied. But it was this very layered idea of the veil that made its way through the work.
I totally agree with that. I think that in the past perhaps I would have done the same thing over and over, not just because my work involved more repetition, but because it was super easy to do so. But with this series I was really like, "what does THIS piece mean?" John [curator John Lustig] kept emphasizing the "cerebral place" when you're working... being hyper aware, understanding why you're creating the piece, and being in the moment. It's the same thing when you practice your yoga, you just throw it all out, and thoughts keep continuously coming in. So, that was tough. And it takes a ton of energy...
...throwing out those thoughts?
Yes, you're constantly working with the veil of the mind, you know? The most important thing you can do for anyone is to tap into your own experience. People aren't looking for sugar-coated happiness anymore. They really are craving truth and authenticity. There are a lot of veils. It's all very integrated, and I was just thinking about all these layers people put on to protect themselves. And they're not bad, you know, we all do it.
Many of us want to grow in radical ways, but we're often too attached to the comforts of the place we've boxed ourselves into. For Haw it seems that the sudden passing of a friend (memorialized in the painting The Last Meal) was the trauma that dropped the floor out and motivated her to challenge her own expectations of herself and her work.
John Lustig came into my studio, right after I came back from New York. My friend Jeff had passed away, July 4th, I decided you know what, I'm gonna get out of dodge, I'm going to New York for a month.
That was July 4th last year?
Yeah. I wanted to learn about the culture in New York, I wanted to be in it, I wanted to meet people, to have a period of ingestion, to conduct studio visits... so, I get there, [incredulous tone] and I start doing the same old bullshit. I brought some watercolors, I was drawing all these people, I was getting very tight again, I was working in this little tiny room... I was like, "this is bullshit. Fuck it. No work. I'm here to learn. I'm here to soak in." And presenting myself to the artists, to the critics, to anyone I met, I was like "I'm not here to take anything from you. I'm here to learn from you, and to seek knowledge." And in letting them know that, they felt comfortable, and they were more willing to give. And it was beautiful, it took all this pressure off me, you know?
So then here I am, and I find this discarded material in the street. And I'm like, "look at this dirty, scuffed-up book from like 1956." I don't even know what it says, it's in Spanish and I only know a little Spanish. So I start drawing on this book, but I took out so many things: the act of reference, the color, my materials, oh my god, I could do it on location!
That really blew my mind, too. You were talking about dropping the act of reference [looking at your subject as you draw/paint]. I'm often doing that intuitively, and giving myself this pressure of "why aren't you looking at anything?"
Oh wow.... see? I wish I had more of that!
But listen, the reason I didn't drop the reference before was because I always felt like it made things look childish. I would always be reminded of the marks not being good enough. And that's just me beating myself up. Really, people connect with work that they connect with, it's as simple as that. It might look like a child drew it. Or an artist like Cy Twombly, you know, I aspire to be in that free state. But then I find myself referencing too much, and I think, why am I drawing the same exact image? I could take a fucking photograph. I want to move away from that.
For a little while I was being represented as a figurative or representational painter, and I was getting set up with studio visits in New York with all these artists who are in that vein. And I was just not connecting.
With them or the work?
With the work. I mean, their work is exquisite, but... one artist in particular, he was telling me about his upcoming show and how incredibly bored he was. And I'm there learning from him that this is NOT what I want. I dunno... I was so uncomfortable, I was itching in my skin, I threw away all my belongings in an effort to pare life down, to get at a broader truth.
This was a really beautiful example of the fluidity with which Julia moves between her painting life and her larger life when she speaks. Her "belongings" here refer both to material trappings but also painterly habits and ticks, the kinds of things that define you but can confine you as well.
And so, when John came he was like, "look, I gotta be real: the repetition thing..." and I was already ready to let that go anyway, but he definitely nailed that home. He was like, "you're being likened to artists like Kehinde Wiley." A well-known artist friend of mine said, "your art could be out of any page of Juxtapoz." It was hard to hear, but at the same time, I recognized it myself. I was ready to hear it. I don't want to be that person who piggybacks on the historical context of another artist. That's not what I want. I'm trying to create my own voice. That's basically it. I want people to look at my work and be like, "that's Julia Haw and I know it."
I love the power of Julia's words. She's ambitious and she's not embarrassed to admit it. Ultimately, if any of us are going to make really good paintings, we have to have the audacity to believe that we can. She created The Western Veil over what sounds like a difficult and ecstatic year, and I'm catching her during a transition in her practice, when the prior body of work is done and the next one is yet to be defined.
After the last series, I was totally depleted. I took a trip, came back, and didn't have any inspiration, I was in this weird state of lull. It's not very comfortable, and it's kind of boring, and it's filled with a lot of bullshit TV. But I'm not necessarily one of those artists that's like, "work through it." I don't feel that. If I don't feel like working, I'm not going to work. I'm not going to churn out some bullshit. I also feel, hand in hand with that, that we learn constantly as artists. When I look at you, I can see the shape of your face. It doesn't matter if I'm "working" or not -- when I go back to work, I'll be a better artist, because I'm learning to see better. The psychological part of the mind is always observing, especially when you're artistic. Periods of ingestion, periods of intake, are extremely important for the spirit.