The figures in paintings by Julie Speed are often entwined, teetering and contorting with grimaced faces as they wrestle in compositions tinged with threats of calamity. The artist obsessively catalogues disaster scenes, both natural and man-made. She keeps binders of evidence against humanity for all our crimes; she even once showed me a stash of thimble-like forms that she refers to as the tips of decommissioned nuclear warheads. A survey of her voluminous paintings confirms our common fears and anticipates our blunders.
Although plagued with night terrors from an early age (she says her first memory is of a nightmare in which she got shot in the head and died), Speed doesn’t see a direct connection between her dreams and the sometimes dark mood of her paintings. “I’m sure if I’d ever been able to see a shrink, they would’ve said, ‘Oh, this is obviously connected to that.’ But I think the reason is that I have such an active imagination,” she told me.
I visited Speed’s home and studio in Marfa, Texas, three times this past spring after seeing her work on Instagram. Many artists have Instagram accounts, of course, and show their steps from the beginning of a work, as Speed does. But her rigorous, almost daily posts combined with music—a little Lucinda Williams here, a bit of Patti Smith there—made for a unique and intriguing combination that deepened my curiosity.
Born in Chicago in 1951, Speed lived in Connecticut, Michigan, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Kentucky, California, and Nova Scotia before moving to Texas—first to Austin and then to Marfa in 2006. “My first career ambition was to be a caveman; my second choice was pirate,” Speed said. “After that, it was settled in my mind that I would just keep painting. I came from a family who were not at all artsy. If you wanted something, you made it yourself.”
Speed enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1969 but quickly discovered that it was not what she’d hoped for. “They were on a whole other track,” she said. “Frank Stella and Andy Warhol were gods. Anyone representational or a non-ironic painter was Satan. Artists were ‘giving up’ painting in droves. It was a slam-dunk case of wrong place, wrong time. After that, I just taught myself from books and museums.”
Some of Speed’s works are seemingly pulled from recent headlines. In The Rights of Sperm (2019), a woman’s skeleton, still in pink socks and what remains of a pink blouse and hair bow, is grabbed by three male hands, one of which breaks off her left arm. Swirling about in a Starry Night-like constellation are thousands of spermatozoa that invade the skeletal remains amid the dry bones’ fierce resistance.
Other paintings bear signs of destruction of biblical proportions. A severed head (Tenderness, 2011), baby-threatening tornadoes (Flying Baby, 2012), and armadas in deadly combat (Fruitbowl, 2009–10) are all morbid tableaux, albeit with a dose of endearing gallows humor.
Speed shares the Marfa property with her husband, Fran Christina, formerly of the blues band the Fabulous Thunderbirds (and now an “aging rock god,” according to Speed). Her studio, in the former jail of the old Fort D.A. Russell, and the home that Christina built are just a few feet from the entrance of the Chinati Foundation.
From her front porch, Speed has an unobstructed view of Donald Judd’s 15 Untitled Works in Concrete, and she often walks the trail around the sculptures, taking note of the sun and the Milky Way in the Southwestern sky. Her many paintings of the sky include Dark Skies (2018), which was part of a McDonald Observatory project to reduce light pollution around the area known as Big Bend. The monochromatic collage painting is dominated by a densely star-populated celestial view revealed by a pinned-back curtain. Four figures—one in papal vestments, the others also ecclesiastical in appearance—take in the view, seemingly at the edge of a precipice.
During a visit to her home, with the accompaniment of Negronis and tequila, Speed related a childhood story about looking through a 1950s-era Time-Life book titled The World’s Great Religions, one of the many sources of her fascination with the macabre. One picture that caught her eye was of sinners being burned at the stake. Around the same time, she would hear her father discussing layoffs at the Alcoa aluminum plant where he worked. She equated that with being burned at the stake, and for a while she feared her dad would suffer the same flaming fate. Speed also talked about her childhood house being painted black and neighbors speculating that her mother might be a witch, further raising her stake-burning fears.
Speed’s 2019 series A Purgatory of Nuns—comprising mixed-medium collage works that were published together as an artist’s book—offers a dose of witty revenge. As a child, Speed’s friends teased her, saying she would end up in purgatory, because she did not partake of the sacrament of baptism. She also reserved scorn for the Sisters of Mercy who tormented her left-handed husband as a boy by beating his left hand (considered the hand of the devil).
A Purgatory of Nuns features gouache-and-collage-altered engravings from an 18th-century guide to Catholic sects that Speed considers a sort of birding guide to saints. In the series, 42 works in all, her brush and scalpel assign saints monstrous twists. The work titled To the Sea * protection from: *Drowning, Pneumonia, Nostalgia depicts a nun with a blue-eyed squid for a head. Migraine * protection from *Hangovers, Pop Quizzes, Depositions shows two large woodpeckers with their beaks striking blows on a nun’s head.
Other such anecdotes and early illustrations of death and massacre figure in Speed’s paintings. Cry Wolf, from 2021, is rife with betrayal, enslavement, murder, and mystery in its treatment of the story of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. As the story goes, Rhea Silvia gives birth to the two brothers, forcibly fathered by Mars, the god of war, against the vow of vestal virginity imposed on her by her uncle Amulius, who was intent on remaining king and preventing claimants to his throne. Amulius ordered the boys drowned, but their trough floated down the river and settled by a fig tree, where they were suckled by a she-wolf and a woodpecker. (Romulus eventually built a wall around the city he founded by the Tiber River and killed Remus when he tried to surmount the wall.)
In Speed’s painting of the brothers, one is seated, while the other stands, inspecting a snarling wolf, its fangs flashing in mid-growl as its body contorts to face the siblings. The seated brother peers at the wolf, reaching for the nurture of its nipples, while the other holds up its tail for closer scrutiny. They are like blind mice, searching an unfamiliar beast to determine its form.
Cry Wolf, collaged with old Japanese woodblock prints and red paint, reveals a lot that is true of Speed’s pictures. The brothers’ eyes, laser-focused, lead into the composition, pointing to associations and relationships between figures, objects, and themes. In Cry Wolf the woodblock prints depict battle scenes and the prequel to war. The careful weighing of chaos and calm in the vestments of the siblings play out elsewhere in the 2022 painting Double Cross, Speed’s first in a series of other murderous brothers as stand-ins for humanity. In this composition, reflected in the sleeve of an upside-down, knife-wielding Cain, a swordsman leans back in much the same way, mirroring the carnage of war.
The devices Speed employs in her paintings—red spheres, figures with third eyes, contorted digits—are part of a compositional system that also features nods to Kazimir Malevich. Speed was drawn to Malevich’s Black Square works early on, and wondered, “What is that thing that grabs you about a painting?” In her own observations, it boiled down to fundamental mathematics that align at precise points in a composition and make it resonate: her version of sacred geometry.
Over the years, she learned to arrange basic geometric shapes on a triangle, a practice that she continues (sometimes for weeks at a time for a painting), until the composition “clicks” into place. A lot of the red in Speed’s paintings evolved from the use of red balls that she picks up and places repeatedly on a triangular surface until the composition is settled. They become elements in paintings like Cry Wolf, or assemblages such as Nebula (2007).
Another prominent component in Speed’s work—figures with three eyes—breaks down assumptions of what we perceive versus what is actually there. The technique is familiar to drawing students who are taught to look at the subject more than the paper, to really see what’s there instead of making assumptions about a thing, whether it be an eye, a mouth, or a vase.
And part of the mystery layered into Speed’s paintings entails their lyrical and allegorical depictions, a universal code of images and symbols unlocking new stories with each glance. We see cautionary tales retold: Double Cross, with Cain and Abel, for example, and in the same series, And His Angels With Him, in which we are thrust into a tempest while gods and demons weigh the scales between good and evil, with red halos and red-tipped shoes adding an ecclesiastical element.
There is a kinship between Speed’s paintings and those of Hieronymus Bosch, the Surrealists, and the Dadaists. But her work lives in its own realm, where we can point to absurd juxtapositions and put aside the laws of physics and nature as torments build. Viewers find themselves in Speed’s own garden of human damnation where her vivid—and dark—imagination delivers our long-delayed comeuppance.