Review: Julie Speed

Julie Speed, Owl (2015), gouache & collage, image courtesy Ruiz-Healy Art

Julie Speed’s enchanting paintings, engravings, prints and collages are on exhibit at Ruiz-Healy Art in San Antonio and Flatbed Press and Gallery in Austin. Speed, who is based in Marfa, Texas, has worked with Flatbed for over 25 years, and this show contains a rich body of engravings, prints and etchings from their most recent collaboration. According to Ruiz-Healy, the partnership with her gallery came about naturally, as she is a member of the International Fine Print Dealers Association. An accompanying full-color catalogue documents the two shows, with an essay by Lyle W. Williams, Curator of Prints & Drawings at the McNay Art Museum.

Speed’s paintings possess the delicate flair of miniaturist paintings and illuminated manuscripts from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. The medium for these historic artworks is gouache, an opaque watercolor, and this is also Speed’s medium of choice, which strengthens the similarity of her work to their historical precedents.

Six hundred years ago, the paintings’ narratives involved biblical references, or subjects generated by the patrons who commissioned them. Today, Speed’s zany, mysterious narratives act like like creative prompts, stirring viewers’ imaginations. Though figurative, Speed leaves the her stories open-ended. From a distance, they look like medieval paintings by an idiosyncratic monk who strayed from the predictable chronicles.

Monkeytree, 2014 gouache & collage, 29.50 x 41 inches
Julie Speed, Monkeytree (2012), gouache & collage, image courtesy Ruiz-Healy Art

During a recent gallery walk through, Speed recalled, “I grew up around fairy tales. My great aunt collected them and used me as her guinea pig. They were always tales like, ‘and then the shark ate the princess. The End.'” Speed’s great aunt was a world traveler, and she exposed her to unknown, exotic realms, filled with dancing Indian goddesses and a book of world religions.

One engraving depicted “three guys strung up, being burned at the stake,” said Speed. When she heard her parents speaking in hushed tones, telling anecdotes of, for example, someone in trouble at work, this was what she imagined might be their fate. Speed’s family wasn’t religious. For some viewers, fish may have a biblical connotation, but Speed thinks of the tale of the magic fish.

Fish Supper,  2012 gouache and collage, 29.25 x 20.50 inches
Julie Speed, Fish Supper (2012), gouache & collage, image courtesy Ruiz-Healy Art

These memories trickle into Speed’s art in a nonsensical array that plays out like a dream. Like the richly symbolic minefield of the unconscious, Speed’s tableaus proffer infinite narrative possibilities. The singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin wrote a song to one of Speed’s paintings, as did an avant-garde musician and poet.

Julie Speed, album cover art, Shawn Colvin, A Few Small Repairs

One of Speed’s trademarks is the third eye. They can have a dizzying effect.

“It hurts your brain,” Speed explains, “because it is trying to make assumptions.”

The third eye exemplifies the liberties that Speed takes with her imagery. Painting in an extra eye opens up new possibilities for both the composition and narrative. In terms of composition, the extra eye opens up a new line of sight. But the extra eye may also be symbolic, open to the viewer’s interpretations, such as heightened perception, seeing beyond the visual realm, or a mystical sign of enlightenment.

Small Sailor  2015 gouache & collage, 29.50 x 39.50 inches
Small Sailor (2015), gouache & collage, image courtesy Ruiz-Healy Art

In her most recent work, Speed combines her deft painterly skills with found paper. She purchased Japanese woodblock prints online. Because they were printed on mulberry paper, they had been worm-eaten in places, but Speed finds them perfect for collages. She also culls from her collection of found paper which includes old German engravings as well as images from Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body (1918).

In her series of collages that use the Gray’s Anatomy paper pieces, the intricate details play tricks on the mind, suggesting floral imagery, botany and abstraction. Upon closer examination, however, the details reveal a gruesome array of splayed penises and blood veins, anatomical details disguised as decoration.

Death and the Maiden, lg jpg 2014 gouache, collage & ink, 40 x 60 inches
Julie Speed, Death and the Maiden (2014) gouache, collage & ink, image courtesy Ruiz-Healy Art

While some artists may begin with the narrative, Speed works backwards, beginning with composition and then moving to the figures. In the case of Small Sailor, Speed began with the room alone, creating it out of her collection of the paper scraps, creating the space from their specific shapes. Then, afterwards, she created the figures.


Speed describes the line of composition in Small Sailor at Ruiz-Healy Art, image courtesy of author

With her art on easels, Speed works on multiple artworks at a time, looking for mistakes to reveal themselves, moving from one to another until she deems them finished.

Speed has been honing her collage skills for years. She began by arranging wooden balls painted red and squares painted black, working persistently to attain the correct feel of composition, until it “clicked.” In her art, these shapes eventually morphed into cakes, severed heads, and flounders; then the cakes turn into skulls, and so on. As Speed explained her artistic process, the formal reason appeared behind her surrealist imagery. She is inspired by the collages of Kazimir Malevich and Kurt Schwitters.

Milky Way, sm 2014 gouache, 20.50 x 29.50 inches
Julie Speed, Milky Way (2014), gouache, image courtesy Ruiz-Healy Art
Birdblind, 2012 collage and gouache, 20 x 13 inches
Julie Speed, Birdblind (2012), collage & gouache, image courtesy Ruiz-Healy Art

Birdblind offers a treasure hunt of discoveries–the shadow play of children, the cross-hatching, and twigs; and the confounding, haunting figure.

It’s not just her facility with arranging shapes, however, that makes Speed an expert at collages. Many layers of formal details contribute to her art’s intricacy and complexity. She paints in and around the composition, adding layers of details that extend beyond the found paper pieces and yet trail into them, or embellish them, like a frame. Speed’s zany humor and wordplay cast a further spell upon her visual riddles. The parallel universe of Speed’s art brings weird and wonderful revelations to our own world of reason and logic.

Julie Speed: Undertoad runs February 17 through March 19 at Patricia Ruiz-Healy Art in San Antonio and February 16 through April 7 at Flatbed Press and Gallery in Austin, Texas.




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