On Thursday, Feb. 6, the Real Art Ways Gallery in Hartford hosted the opening of “Sticky,” Assistant Professor of Art Julia Randall’s show of colored-pencil drawings. Randall is in her sixth year of teaching at Wesleyan and is beloved among students for her “ARST 131 – Drawing I” and “ARST 432 – Drawing II” classes, as well as for mentoring senior theses and teaching assistants.
I drove into Hartford with a car full of other former Drawing I students, pulling into a street so snowy that we had to push the car backwards out of a snowbank when we tried to park. I had seen slides of Randall’s work in class when she introduced herself to us early on in the semester, and I remembered being struck by the vibrancy and whimsy of her drawings. I had even done some Googling afterwards, deeply intrigued by the interplay of lips, flora and fauna, and intricate mechanical parts that characterize her images.
“Sticky,” her latest series, is a sequence of drawings of chewed, partially-inflated bubblegum. There is a remarkable tension between the thin, stretched, nearly-translucent “bubble” of each piece of gum and the masticated, fleshy remainder, which gleams with spit and is punctuated by wrinkled and irregular teeth marks. The opposing textures are extraordinary in that they could be colored cotton sheets and dripping meat, but are clearly the same material, underscoring bubblegum’s fundamental marvel.
The drawings are stark but visceral in their simplicity, with the bubblegum imposed on a white background with merely a cast shadow to create setting. Some of the drawings also contain tacks or dental implements holding the gum in place, contrasting the taut tactility of the gum with the steely solidity of the metal. Naturally, due to the subject matter, the images rely on a bubblegum palette, encompassing a range from pale pink to a slightly sickly purple and blue, but they gain an unexpected brightness from Randall’s expert use of colored pencils.
Randall explained to me that she produces this dimensionality through the careful application of layer after layer of color in what might be termed a painterly style. Rather than copy directly from a single photograph, she observes her subject from a variety of angles and develops a hyper-realistic composite of its form.
“I spend a lot of time just looking before I do any drawing,” Randall said. “I look to see what the ‘rules’ are, if that makes any sense; I look to see what the tonality is, what the color does, and how it shifts as you go through different areas of light. I look to see how transparency shows itself…I may start off with direct observation of the photograph, but through all of these subtle exaggerations and edits, I make it seem even more so, it’s [about] learning the language of the object, and accentuating it, so you think that you’re seeing something that looks reality-based, but in fact, it’s very, very much based on fiction.”
One of the strongest aspects of Randall’s “Sticky” series is the composition of her images, which are consistently dynamic despite the inevitable similarities between each piece of gum. Combined with the high level of detail, the tight crops and almost trompe l’oeil effect of her style prevent the drawings from being trite, stock images of gum. Remarkably, her work manages to be both accessible and meaningful, candy for the eyes that also hints at human flesh and fragility.
Randall explained that this clarity of purpose is key to her artistic vision.
“I don’t want to make things that are like wallpaper,” Randall said. “I want to make things that are both beautiful and arresting. I’d like to try to speak to the larger experience that everyone has to deal with: the body, the corporeality, the sexuality, the humor, and the ephemerality of our lives.”
The show also includes Randall’s first foray into film: a video of bubbles being blown, chewed, and reabsorbed by disembodied mouths in blackness. It was certainly one of the most mesmerizing art films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing exhibited, enthralling both for its eerie familiarity and for its inventiveness. It was produced with the help of Randall’s friend Chris Zitelli, who has a background in video editing.
Although the video was paired with a soundtrack of bubbles being popped and chewed, it was mostly drowned out by the chatter of circulating viewers. The gallery space was filled with many of Randall’s students, past and present, and many of her colleagues from the University.
Randall was particularly delighted by the outpouring of student support, which is a testament to her charm and enthusiasm in the classroom.
“We’ve had so much bad weather that I was just getting really nervous, really anxious that I would just be standing around there by myself,” Randall said. “I think that fear, the exhibition fear, when you actually put yourself out there in public, when you are there as well as your work; that’s always something that makes me initially nervous. And in the end, there was such a beautiful show of support from my students. That really meant the most to me, to be honest. It was past and present students, all showing up. There’s just something so marvelous about that.”
As a former student of Randall, I was immensely glad to have made the trek and to have had the opportunity to be inspired by the passion and commitment to craft visible in Randall’s work. As the name of show suggests, “Sticky” is a series that will stick with you, whether or not you enjoy its grotesquerie, and one whose timelessness is a tribute to its creator’s skill and freshness of thought.
Randall, for her part, says her career is driven by her willingness to remain open to play, experimentation, and the evolution of her art.
“Something that I talk to my students about a lot, especially the majors or people who are in Drawing II, is, as they go forward, to try to seek out their own content, the things about their work that make it specific to them,” Randall explained. “It never really stops. There’s this impression that when you go to an exhibition of your professor’s [work], for example, that things have kind of fixed into place, and they’ve really found their thing. In fact, it may be like that for some people, but it’s not like that for me. I actually really identify with this consistent struggle to redefine the things that are truly important to me, and to make sure that I’m pushing my images forward, so I’m not just [being] formulaic. And it’s challenging, and it’s hard to give up things that you do well. I practice what I teach, instead of practicing what I preach.