"The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery."
A fundamental aspect of Julie Speed's art is that each work gives rise to a multitude of questions. While gazing upon her exquisitely crafted pictures, we can only ponder the meanings behind Speed's inscrutable subjects and curious settings; she certainly won't tell us what they are. The artist has become accustomed to repeated questions about such things as her frequent depiction of "the third eye," the numerous clerics who take center stage in her compositions, and the vivid if idiosyncratic allusions to sex, violence, and psychic drama in her paintings. Speed conjures such strange settings and eccentric characters that it is impossible not to wonder where it all comes from. Are autobiographical elements at play? And, if so, has Speed's own life been so calamitous? Are the paintings based on dreams? Perhaps she makes them as a way of exorcising some especially surly demons...
Storytelling plays a central role in Julie Speed's art, and we might imagine her studio to be filled with preparatory drawings in which she carefully works out her protagonists' facial expressions, gestures, and other telling narrative details before they are set onto canvas. In fact, this couldn't be further from the truth. Speed is forthright in noting that the imagery found in her paintings comes to her fully formed. The images arrive to her in an instant, "like dictation," she has said, often while she is sitting in the bathtub or driving along desolate stretches of highway in West Texas. Dreams and the subconscious — fundamental creative arenas for the surrealists and many other modern and contemporary artists — simply have little play here. When Speed does sketch something, it is merely to provide her with a visual reminder for some future time, since ideas for paintings often come two or three at a time and this kind of meticulous painting is a slow process.
As for the meaning behind the images that finally make their way onto canvas, Speed has always preferred to leave that to the viewer. The artist, of course, has her own
ideas and explanations about her works, but she does not readily share them. Ultimately, she likens the compositions to Rorschach tests, bringing forth varied interpretations depending upon the mind-set of the individual viewer. She once noted that a work eliciting a uniform response from all who saw it was probably "a ham-fisted picture" that deserved reworking.
For me, another big question that emerges about Speed's art is related to the fact that there is little in the realm of contemporary art production to which this work can be compared. In fact, there has been something of a revival in figurative and realistic painting since the 1990s; other younger American artists working in this mode include John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, Salomon Huerta, and Bo Bartlett. But Speed's combination of figurative subject matter, stylized sense of realism, and emphasis on oblique narrative is unique.