Thursday, June 12, 2008

This Golden Afternoon - The Fairy-Tale world of Julianna Bright

If you've known me for any length of time, you will have heard me blathering on, at length, about the now-defunct but still amazing and life-changing band The Quails. This trio of three little friends Jen Smith, Seth Lorenczi, and Julianna Bright produced some of the most danceable and heartfelt queer punk music ever, earning them a coveted spot in my "favorite band" rotation of Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre, and, um, Belle and Sebastian.

Sadly, The Quails called it quits in 2004, with Seth and Julianna moving to Portland, while Jen, a visual artist who toured with bands like Cha-Cha Cabaret and is widely credited with coining the phrase "Riot Grrl", moved down to LA to attend grad school at UC Irvine.

Since then, Seth and Julianna have been working on some charming little projects of their own, including their daugher, Evie, Seth's food writing (and making), their incredibly beautiful band The Golden Bears, and of course, Julianna's stunning paintings.

It might be reductionist to say that Julianna's use of obscure Victorian-era themes (she paints, as she calls them, "forgotten fairy-tales") and simplistic mediums (hand-drawing, goache) to fashion her images puts her comfortably in line with the values of steampunk, but I think it is at least safe to say that they share some of the same ethos: dedication to old-fashioned inventiveness and extraordinary, surprising beauty.
A regular at galleries that cherish small-scale, heartfelt pieces, her paintings pop off of the wall (and the printed page - see her entry for "Diary" in The Encyclopedia Project) with bright, crisp colors and fantastical imagery, mostly in creams, reds, and greens.
All are quietly beautiful with a disturbing undercurrent of tension - why is that woman tied up, and why is her bird-saviour feeding her? Is she being fattened up? Why isn't she being untied? Why is that couple , one of whom has an eagle's head, sitting naked in the mouth of a monster? They seem at peace, so maybe he's just keeping them safe? And what to make of the slightly menacing anthropomorphic characters, assorted scattered body parts, and strangely humanoid but not human figures with which her works are populated? One of my personal favorites is a portrait of a well-dressed couple, a gentleman rabbit in a waistcoat and spats and bearing a single flower, complete with root system, walking with his brightly-dressed wife, whose high-heeled boots, toy hat, and parasol are nicely set off by her teal plumage and the fish she carries in her mouth.
I want to know more about them - are they going visiting? The rabbit looks away, seemingly irritated, while the bird looks directly at the viewer, almost smug. The lyrical quality of Bright's paintings is matched by the dreamy, lilting songs of The Golden Bears, who recently recorded a series of lullabies based on children's stories belonging to her grandfather.
Like her paintings, the songs, filled with vivid imagery of ships in harbour, diffused sunlight, and life seen through antique mirrors, conjures a world in perpetual autumn: crisp, beautiful, and slightly chilly.
It is a peaceful and quiet place where you nevertheless must bundle up against the scary uncertainty of the outside world (in "This Golden Afternoon", Bright mentions that it impossible for her to make art, sing, or even sweep up leaves without having "demons about").
Sweeping tales built around a single image predominate (branches against the sky, sunlight filtering through a window, and frequently, the sea), or in one funny instance, a lullaby where she fairly begs her daughter to go down for a nap - "Sleep, my darling/sleep an hour/sleep just like a folded flower" - Bright's remarkably clear, soothing voice is given a perfect platform with these songs, a natural evolution from the acoustic protest-cum-folk songs that occasionally pop up in the Quails' catalogue.

Since becoming a parent, Bright has noticed that her work is beginning to revolve a lot around animals and birds and other child-appropriate themes that echo the work of fellow artist and mom Nikki McClure. Like McClure, she and Lorenczi frequently find themselves making art out of necessity (their album, Walls Without Walls, for instance, was recorded because playing the demo versions in the car was the only thing that would get Evie to stop crying).

Doubtless the urge to fill the world with beautiful images, delicious food, and gorgeous sounds is an effort to create the sort of world she and Lorenczi would like to gift to their beloved child, a desire to create a perfect nest that they can all snuggle into, warm and relatively safe from the kinds of forces that they railed against in their younger days. It's a nest we would all love to crawl into.

Check out Bright's illustrations on her website, and visit The Golden Bears Myspace page to hear the music that you'll have trouble tearing yourself away from.