Collapsing Binaries: A Conversation with Julia Barello

by Veronica Nawojczyk Issue: Spring 2016

Julia Barello is a jeweler, metalsmith, and installation artist currently based in New Mexico. Her new installation, “Strange Gardens,” is on display in the Mayer Gallery of the Turchin Center in Boone, NC from February 5 – August 6, 2016. Composed of dyed X-ray films meticulously cut and arranged to form organic shapes and designs, her installations transform images of human suffering into designs of nature, full of life and meaning. Veronica Nawojczyk had the privilege of video-interviewing Julia Barello about her work and its relationship with ecological and social justice themes. The following is a transcript of our interview:

VN: Your installation art has been described by the Turchin Center as “metaphors for the human body as well as the interconnections between the body and the natural world from which it emerges” Could you tell us about your inspiration for combining images of the natural world with that of the human body?

JB: Well, I think it starts for me with an interest many years ago in trying to create a delineation between nature and culture, realizing that it was an artificial binary, and wanting to find ways to collapse that binary. So while I don’t think about that consciously when I’m working, I think that’s really what the underlying idea is: how to contextualize us (humans) as a part of nature. Even though we might have the technology to take photographs of the interior of our bodies, I’m interested in how to collapse that binary and put it in a context – the context of nature that we intend to inhabit. We inhabit nature, or however you want to view that, but we’re also part of it in a real, intrinsic way. I just think humankind has always tried to separate themselves from that. This is sort of my plea.

“It starts for me with an interest many years ago in trying to create a delineation between nature and culture, realizing that it was an artificial binary, and wanting to find ways to collapse that binary.”

VN: We’ve recently re-themed our review to focus on ecological and social justice issues, so we really appreciate that you’re working in that realm. I understand that you once worked predominantly with jewelry, metal-making, and body adornment. Recently, you’ve shifted your focus to these ambitious, large-scale installation art pieces. That’s quite a dramatic transformation. What inspired this transition?

JB: I was trained as a jeweler and that’s actually what I got my Master’s Degree in. I was interested in metalsmithing because within the discipline there was a lot of room for conceptual exploration. There are ideas of functionality and the construction of identity, which relate to how we dress and present ourselves to the world on a day to day basis. I see jewelry as fitting into that system. I started, first of all, trying to make jewelry that was genderless – that was not obviously for a woman to wear and that was not obviously for a man to wear, but instead that was specifically about the physicality of the body. That’s sort of where I left off on making jewelry, moving from this sort of intimate act of wearing something that spoke about our physicality to moving toward these larger wall pieces, which were more about creating an environment for us to inhabit as opposed to our body being this environment that this object inhabited.

VN: We actually noticed that the beautiful distortion of the X-ray films in your installation works creates a similar genderlessness, a degree of anonymity. Could you speak to this effect?

JB: So, each of those films that I’ve used have come from an individual. In fact, I have to be really careful about cutting people’s names off. Having people’s names visible is a HIPPA violation, so even though those images are super specific to a given individual and whatever’s going on in their body, I have to be cautious that none of their names are exposed. It’s about individuals within this sort of anonymous mass, so there’s this push and pull between anonymity and individuality that happens in those pieces. I look at each of those elements as functioning both as part of a greater group and as an individual. It’s about that simultaneous subtraction of the specific and embrace of the overall.

VN: Very interesting! Going back to your transition from body art to installation art, how has this new art form changed the way that you visually communicate your ideas? And what has the response been to these pieces, and how has that differed from responses to your smaller-scale body works?

JB: That is actually very interesting. The part I neglected to tell you earlier was that one of the reasons I started to move towards the wall work was that I had a child a number of years ago. The transition in my work was very much linked to being pregnant and having a child that I was breastfeeding. I wanted to be cautious about what chemicals might transfer through my work to my child. As a metalsmith, you’re doing a lot of silver soldering, which means working with materials that your body can ingest and then resubmit out. Working with the films was both the result of trying to control the amount of fumes that I was inhaling (so I was not doing soldering or straight up metalwork) and not having the time to be engaged with really in-depth technical processes. Instead, I began working in bits and pieces. It’s very much a piecework beginning, because I started off hand-cutting all my shapes. I would sit and hand-cut, all in response to having a child and wanting to protect him and also having to modify my working habits to acknowledge the reality of being a mother and an artist.

“I was just interested in being an artist from a more academic point of view, where I had the luxury to explore what I wanted to explore, and then suddenly, I’ve hit on this thing that’s very graspable to people.”

This work has been incredibly well received because it’s a pretty simple idea – this idea of taking the films, which are of the interior of bodies, and creating something else with them that speaks to a larger metaphor about the human condition. People have been hugely responsive to this work…I mean it’s incredible! As an artist who’s also an academic, I never worried much about selling work, but now I can’t even stay on top of my orders! It’s kind of a bizarre thing in a way because I never went into it with that as my goal. I was just interested in being an artist from a more academic point of view, where I had the luxury to explore what I wanted to explore, and then suddenly, I’ve hit on this thing that’s very graspable to people. It’s super simple and straightforward, yet there’s a certain beauty to it that a wide range of people respond to.

VN: Your work is certainly highly relatable. What you were talking about before with your child even seems to reflect a high level of consciousness about your environment and how it affects you. Looking at your work, we couldn’t help but notice other environmental and ecological ties. Could you explain the intention behind using such organic forms in your work?

JB: Well, I grew up in Seattle, and I spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. I think I was always going to be an artist because, even when I was younger, I would notice a richness of visual complexity and textured patterns that exists in, say, a moss-covered rock. Aside from the collapsing binaries, the fact that this is an environment that’s reflective is important to me. I live in the desert now, so I’m in a very different environment, but I’m equally attentive to my physical environment. I’m equally interested in looking at things in the natural world as the built world.

“I would notice a richness of visual complexity and textured patterns that exists in, say, a moss-covered rock.”

VN: That’s interesting that you mention your location, because you’ve mentioned before that in creating your organic forms, you’ve “hunted for plants that are native and common to the Northeast United States” or to wherever you were. Why is it important to you and your work that your botanical inspiration be of local origin?

JB: It’s important to me because it reflects the site that the work is located in, so it speaks to that actual location. I mean, I’ve done pieces where I haven’t been as attentive to that as much, but I’ve also done a lot of work that’s been super specific to a particular area in terms of using native plants. It’s an acknowledgement of the individuality and the specificity of that particular place. We don’t want to lose that specificity. So we don’t want to lose that biological diversity.

VN: Do you find that in rooting your works to certain locations that your audience relates more deeply or feels more connected to it?

JB: Absolutely. It’s surprising how many people recognize silhouettes!…I mean I’m also surprised by how many people don’t recognize silhouettes, but people typically recognize the gesture, the motion. I’m always surprised at how anybody I talk to has got some story about the piece, like, “oh this reminds me of…” They all have some point of entry, some point of connection to the work. It’s a nice thing to know that people can enter it easily. I never thought I’d be making work that was so readily accessible.

VN: How do you think your work fits into broader conversations on the environment and on humanity?

JB: Well, I’ve always been aware that I’m a re-user and a recycler. I’m taking a plastic object out of the production, manufacture, use stream, and I’m reapplying it to something else. However, the material I’m using now is no longer manufactured, it’s no longer reused. Now, all of these materials have been subsumed into a whole digital practice for image making of the body, and so my materials are almost all gone. There was a point where I felt like I was taking something that had been manufactured and reapplying it into something that could speak to bigger issues of use, re-use, and plastics…but at this point, I don’t have that argument anymore. These films aren’t being made anymore because there’s no need, no use, for them. I’m just recycling the last ones before they disappear. I’m down to a couple of years worth of material.

In-progress shots from Barello’s wall installation “Hydrangea / Cloud,” which is being installed in the Turchin Center’s Mayer Gallery.

VN: That must be disheartening…

JB: Well, no, it’s actually very interesting because now I’m just thinking, “whoops, I’m gonna have to reconfigure what I’m doing at that point.” I could fabricate films. That’s a constant question I have –  ways I could fabricate X-ray film. But I have no interest in doing that. These are real, actual films that I’ve had to go dig out of recycling bins. For me, there’s a validity to that – to the truth of what they are.

VN: Could you explain to us a little bit about your process in creating these large-scale works?

Usually I have a site that I’ve committed to making a piece of art for and that’s where I start. For instance, I knew that the Turchin Center had these big glass windows, so I felt like there was going to be this sort of loose interface between the exterior and the interior of the space, which proved to be true. Even if you see photos, though, you never really know what the space is going to look like, so I had been thinking a lot about that space being sort of enclosed but not visually enclosed, and I just started thinking about clouds. I live in the desert Southwest and the clouds here are incredible. The big thunderheads are just amazing. So I spent a month photographing thunderheads. I’d also been thinking about some hydrangea blossoms that I’d done a piece on recently. Then it’s about mulling over things for a while, thinking about what happens if I make a thundercloud that’s really out of hydrangea blossoms, which turned into the piece “Hydrangea / Cloud.” I mean, it’s really as unlinked and intuitive as that.

“These are real, actual films that I’ve had to go dig out of recycling bins. For me, there’s a validity to that – to the truth of what they are.”

VN: Am I understanding that you make your works according to the space that you display them in? So, you made that work specifically for the Turchin Center?

JB: I did make that piece “Hydrangea / Cloud” for the Turchin Center, but that’s not always the case. For instance, the work “Wisteria” I made for a different museum. I reconstruct it wherever I put it up because that’s one I’ve shown a couple of times. Then [the red cluster of blossoms], I made that for the Turchin, but it’s not specific to the Turchin. It really depends on what I’m working on. I do commissions for hospitals and specific institutions, so I think about those spaces and what the meaning of those institutions are. It’s quite variable. I think this is the problem with being an academic now: I don’t have a lot of time to just make work, so I usually make work for a deadline or a specific project. My work forms out of the project. I think that some of the most important pieces to me have been pieces that I’ve done in response to a really finite space. It sets up a different kind of range of parameters, which can be super freeing to have.

VN: We’re so glad your work has found a home here.

Find Julia Barello’s work at the Turchin Center here:

Wisteria, Julia Barello