Hysteria Revisited: Ridden Hard and Put Away Wet

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The Rumpus Interview with artist Julie Bolene.

Julie Bolene’s nudes appear shiny and dead. There are finger bones protruding from hands and bluish white faces. Their sexy tattooed death is distinctly American woman. A collar made from dollar bills braces a spindly neck. A Luis Vuitton ball-gag fills a lipsticked mouth. Bolene’s women don’t eat, but they hold an apple, watermelon or skull like a stolen diamond.

In order to crack Bolene’s codes, I enlisted my favorite ménage de trois of French feminist theorists: Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva who believe that in order to understand women’s art, there’s a context to consider. That context is a body/mind connection-a bodily knowing-which is its own cry against the social construction of sex roles. After all, historically, the body has been associated with all things feminine: weak, immoral, unclean and decayed. Women’s art is our testimony of survival and our trajectories of the psychic life in 3-D.  In order to understand Bolene’s oil paintings, I swiped Kristeva’s protolanguage of “hysteria” (from the Greek ‘hystera’ meaning womb), a feminized expression of despair, rage and other wildly emotional and socially unacceptable behaviors. Kristeva implied that the self-reflexive narcissism of the hysteric derives from suffering, a response to our “otherness.”

Art often expresses emotional memories stored deep in the snake brain while unraveling stories that need to be told. Bolene is not only rewriting the relationship between identity, gender and representation. She is also busy exploring women’s relationship with death.

I visited Bolene in her live/work space in a downtown storefront. When I peered closer, I found that I was bearing witness to the outburst of her psychic life. In a dusty linoleum hallway, Killer, her chubby beagle, greeted me. Julie was on the floor constructing wallpaper out of vintage Penthouse magazine photos and eating Mac and Cheese out of a white square container. “Are you out of your mind?” I asked. There were garbage bags on the floor exploding with clothes.

“You should go through that stuff. I’m throwing it out,” she said.

I stepped over the plastic bags to get closer to her painting of Margaret Cho, which appeared in a group show in Los Angeles called, Is This Thing On? a collection of paintings of comedians from the 70’s until now. In the painting, Margaret Cho’s full-sleeved arms are bright as peacock feathers against her grey tinged skin and she’s mostly naked in a sea of tiny thumbprint images of people having sex behind her.

Photo by Kent Geib

“Does she like it?” I asked.

“She said she did and it made me cry.”

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The Rumpus: When did you start painting and who are your influences?

Julie Bolene: I started drawing as early as I could remember. I was a strange child. I made my own toys and talked to myself. I was obsessed with cartoons and comic books. I didn’t really understand school for a long time and just wanted to draw. By high school I didn’t think I was good enough to try to pursue it, so I pretty much gave up for several years. When I was twenty-two I was institutionalized for anorexia. I had been going to school for personal training and it was killing me: the anorexia and personal training. I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life when they were about to release me. My counselor suggested art school, since the only group I didn’t complain about was art therapy. I ended up going to the Art Institute of Orange County for graphic design. The school was an absolute joke, but I found a few instructors, especially Michael Hanson, who encouraged me to start painting my assignments. Eventually they even suggested I leave that school and go somewhere that could teach me illustration and painting.

Photo by Sheila Hiber

Rumpus: Why was the Art Institute a joke? It sounds like you had a great instructor who noticed your strengths and encouraged you to pursue them somewhere else?

Bolene: It’s incredibly expensive for what they have to offer. Be wary of any school advertised while you’re on the treadmill at 24 Hour Fitness. The school has the worst corporate shitty art all over the hallways, and most of the ‘game art’ students are burnouts who play video games in the cafeteria all day. Most of the instructors were failed art professionals phoning it in to students with no talent. I was lucky to find three instructors who really cared. All three were often in trouble with the administration for stepping outside the box.

I started doing fetish and pin up modeling around the same time my husband was sick with cancer and I was in art school. Modeling provided me a physical escape from the house. I art directed a lot of the shoots I did and there are a lot of parallels between my paintings and the shoots I directed.  An amazing painter at this time named Kevin Llewellyn asked me to sit for a painting.

He is the master of figurative painting. We became great friends. I studied with him and we dated for a while. I also watched his other figure painting friends closely, such as Sean Cheetham, Kent Williams, Shawn Barber, and Michael Hussar.

Rumpus: Did the fetish/pin up modeling improve your relationship with your body? Seems it would be a mixed bag: you going to modeling gigs while recovering from anorexia and your husband weak and ill from a terminal illness. You were his sole support and caretaker. Is that why your paintings of women look sickly and pale?

Photo by Kent Geib

Bolene:  I don’t do body-centric modeling; mostly I do fetish and subversive stuff. I was asked only one time to lose weight. Modeling forced me to get over my hang-ups. It’s one bonus from having to look at a few thousand naked or nearly naked images of myself.  I’m pretty comfortable with my outsides now. It’s my brain that atrophies when I model full time. I don’t know what I mean by making my subjects look sick or deathly. Maybe it’s a commentary of the emphasis we put on beauty. Beauty is funny and temporary. Beauty is also a disease of sorts. For example, it’s easy for someone pretty to rely solely on what they can get from people from looks instead of getting an education or cultivating talent. I see that in Los Angeles.

Rumpus: I love the religious iconography with the skulls, dead babies, and tattooed women of Llewellyn. What happened between you and Kevin? Of the portraitists above, the one that stands out to me is Michael Hussar. Like you, he’s more of a modern surrealist and less of a classic portrait artist. His images disturb. My favorites include the elaborate clown zombie with pupil-less grey pools for eyes and bloody gashed lips sucking a gelatinous sausage pop. There’s a similar pornographic corpse prancing about your canvases, only his are fat and white and yours are anorexic. Your women are never eating.

Photo by Sheila Hiber

Bolene: Kevin and I broke up and I just started painting everyday. I made a deal with myself that for the first three years I would be willing to paint even if I threw it in the trash. After about six months people started offering me commissions and shows. I obsessively study art history and am heavily influenced by the old masters, but my contemporary influences are Laurie Lipton, Ron English, Jason Maloney, Lori Earley, Kris Lewis, and Matthew Bone. I also love mass print painters of the 1960’s and 70’s: Lou Shabner, JH Lynch, Leo Jansen, Tretchikoff, and Vinciatta. It’s always these creepy half-naked paintings of sad women that inspire my work.

Rumpus: When I look at Shabner, I think, “Whatever he’s on, I wants some.” Why did you choose to work with oil instead of water, charcoal, or film? I know your process is complex because I commissioned you to paint me in my Evel Knievel motorcycle helmet a year ago and I still don’t have that painting.  When will it be finished? How long do your paintings take to complete?

Bolene: Hahaha. Yeah. It’s really close to being done. I’ve learned a lot about painting since I started that painting of you, so I can’t quit fucking with it and changing it. You’ll probably have to give me a deadline, like you need it by next Thursday or you’ll never talk to me again. Acrylic and watercolor offer very little room for development and error. Oil is flexible but very frustrating at first. I’m still learning. Since I’m teaching myself how to paint it’s often a process of trial and error. I paint in mostly thin glazes, which means lots and lots of layers that I have to wait to dry to add a new layer. This means I have seven paintings at one time sitting in front of space heaters in my studio to help the drying process, and also means I’m painting in my underwear from the heat.  I get to do photography through my modeling, while painting provides me a different medium to work with. There is a lot of satisfaction from taking a piece of wood and turning it into an image close to a photograph.

Photo by Kent Geib

Rumpus: As a fetish model, you probably have a more intimate relationship to images and poses. How does that relationship infuse your paintings?

Bolene: I’m told I’m a good model but I had no idea what I was doing. I was pretty good at watching and learning. Sometimes I paint myself because I know how to get the pose or expression I need for the painting.

Rumpus: We share an obsession with 70′s porn. I collect 70’s Playboy and fashion. It seems like you are interpreting 70′s Playboy portraits with oils and a macabre twist. What do you find fascinating about 70′s portraits? I like the way raw images of bodies looked back then, with jiggling bellies and tear shaped boobs without surgery or photo shop.

Bolene: I prefer the 70′s Penthouse. It’s way dirtier than Playboy. I love the 70s. There’s something raw, dirty, and ugly but really sexy about the 70’s for me. I collect 70’s Penthouse magazines. I wear vintage dresses and shoes. I love Bridget Bardot, Sharon Tate, Sofia Loren, Julie Newmar, Peggy Lipton, and
Farrah Fawcett.

Photos by Julian Murray

Rumpus: In two of your paintings you interpret or deface American relics. One woman wears a George Washington dollar bill Elizabethan collar. Another woman flaunts a Louis Vuitton ball gag. You told me that Japanese prostitutes turn tricks for Louis Vuitton purses. It seems like you are making a statement about the grotesqueness of designer labels and status symbols and how this relates to women selling themselves for them?

Bolene: You’re talking about the Rich Bitch series.  I’m painting images of women in bondage with Louis Vuitton-monogrammed leather ball gags and restraints. I am making fun of those types of women. I try to make people uncomfortable with my paintings. Louis Vuitton is gross and tasteless. I love designer things, if there’s actually design to it. Monogrammed bags make me sick and are hilarious. I also have a Bleeding Heart series, and I get political in my God and Country series. The only thing tackier to me than the American flag is Jesus. I’m doing a painting called Strange Fruit of a blonde woman in blackface eating a watermelon. That one is so fucked up it’s hard to paint sometimes. I think good art should not just be pretty but it should be upsetting at the same time.

Rumpus: When I look at your paintings, they remind me of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Films Stills series. Her self-portraits are of women constrained by a gendered costume and they look both caught and aggressive. The women you paint have a deathly skin tone, as if they are pornified ghosts constrained, but holding red apples or honey sticks. Are you making a statement about the lifelessness of consumerism? The hideousness of our desires? Of porn?

Bolene: I love Cindy Sherman, consumerism, and porn. I also seem to use myself as a muse a lot. Sherman is absolutely an influence of mine, especially when I’ve art directed photo shoots that are more weird than hot. I’ve always felt like a damaged woman lucky, that I’ve survived. I like to paint my models like that. My models look like they’ve been ridden hard and put away wet. I’ve felt like that most of my life.

Photo by Kent Geib

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First photo by Phillipe.

Click images to enlarge.


Antonia Crane is a writer, teacher and performer in Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir SPENT by Barnacle Books/Rare Bird Lit. Her other work can be found in Playboy, Dame Magazine, Salon, PANK magazine, Black Clock, The Believer, Frequencies, Slake, The Los Angeles Review The New Black, and lots of other places. She can be found running up Griffith Park mountain and here: http://antoniacrane.com. More from this author →