Exhibition Review: Julia Randall’s “Oral Fixations”

“Pulled Peach”, Julia Randall, 2013, Colored pencil on paper

Julia Randall’s most recent exhibition, “Oral Fixations,” a ten-year retrospective at Wesleyan University’s Davison Art Center, explores desire, ephemerality, and the passage of time through gorgeous, occasionally humorous, but always impressive hyperreal colored pencil drawings. While these drawings are clearly virtuosic, Randall’s impressive handling of the medium, and her pitch perfect control of color and tone are far from decorative, and the exquisite making of her drawings bring the ordinary, the sublime, and the sometimes bizarre imagery to life.
The exhibition begins with a series of works entitled “Lick Line,” small drawings of disembodied mouths and tongues set against white backgrounds. The pieces in this series are subtle, erotic, and beg to be viewed up close. It is fitting that these works are positioned at the entrance to the show as it was this series that began Randall’s foray into drawings of and about the mouth. In these works Randall highlights the sensuality and expressivity of the mouth, ideas that are expanded upon and reworked in later drawings.
In another bay, Randall’s series, “Lovebirds,” and “Decoys” bring the viewer out of the realm of the ordinary and into a strange and luscious world. Surreal mash-ups of human mouths and birds, exotic plants and human features, portrayed with characteristic care to detail, bring to mind 18th century botanical drawings and the exoticization and fetisization of an unrecognizable other.
“Lures,” a series of drawings of blurry mouths in motion, either speaking or engaging in sexual signalling, stands in some ways apart from the other work. While many of Randall’s drawings deal with time implicitly, “Lures” is different in that it explicitly shows the passage of time through portraying motion.
Randall’s newest work, the series, “Blown”, recently shown at Real Art Ways in Hartford, is in many ways a culmination and explicit exploration of the themes touched upon in her earlier work. Working off of her earlier drawings of mouths and saliva bubbles, this series focuses on the imagery of the chewing gum bubble, blown, chewed closed, and drawn enlarged and in exquisite detail against a white background. Like the drawings of mouths, these pieces are seductive and lifelike, referencing the body through Randall’s careful manipulation of color. These drawings emphasize vulnerability and the body, and question the distinction between inner and outer. The various moments of inflation and deflation in this work implicitly reference time, ephemerality, and fragility. A video projected onto a gallery wall explicitly references these concepts. In this video several disembodied pieces of gum are chewed, blown into bubbles, and deflate.
These drawings of chewing gum are clearly not just fun and sugary confections, to be consumed, without thought. The gravity and ultimately unsettling nature of the work is underscored in several of Randall’s drawings featuring bubbles pinned to the wall or poked and prodded with dental tools. These works speak to an underlying current of morbid fascination present in the earlier work, especially as seen in “Lovebirds” and “Decoys.” These images of ephemeral bubbles pinned to the wall, or poked and prodded, speak to the desire to capture through obsessive care to detail. Like several of the earlier drawings, they bring to mind the naturalist displays of old, and imbue the rest of the work with a bitter undertone, beautiful, detailed, but all about capturing, cataloging, fetishizing. This idea of capturing runs in contrast to the ephemerality of the subject matter–mouths are always on the move and bubbles, once blown, always pop.
Despite their stark backgrounds and objective presentation, Randall’s drawings refuse the sterility of natural history museum-style classification. Throughout the show, the viewer is continuously reminded that the objects drawn so lovingly are not rare or precious, but imbued with a sense of emphatic life. Instead of feeling removed from time and space, they feel alive. In her gallery talk on the day of the opening, March 28th, Randall spoke of the wonder in being able to draw air, to capture what normally goes unseen. The drawings in “Oral Fixations” in many ways feel like and function as bubbles full of air, fragile and ephemeral, ordinary and sublime.

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