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Portrait

Photograph by Erin Rommel

Just two or three questions into a Richmond student’s interview for an online journal devoted to digital art and culture, Digital America, painter Julia Rommel, ’02, came clean. “What I do hour after hour in my studio has nothing to do with a computer,” she said.

Rommel’s paintings are relentlessly physical productions, layer upon layer of hues painted iteratively onto canvasses that she’s stretched, folded, stapled, pulled off stretcher bars, and re-stretched again until she can say to herself, “OK, this is not driving me crazy anymore.” Nearly every reviewer comments on her laborious process, the legacy of which is evident in her “broad, veiny hands of a bricklayer,” as she described them in one artist statement. Some days in her studio end with her exhausted.

Rommel, who lives and works in Brooklyn, makes the kinds of paintings that sometimes baffle the casual art gallery visitor. Her forms are abstract, her canvasses textured and sculptural. Critics offer polished praise. “As you stand before them trying to orient yourself,” wrote a reviewer for The New York Times, “you can feel the ground dropping away beneath your feet.”

Future Pond by Julia Rommel“Process-y abstractions take beauty by stealth,” wrote another for The New Yorker. “Their glories wittily suggest unexpected luck befalling, time after time, an artist who was just doing her job.”

It was not always thus. As a Richmond student, Rommel painted much like her mother, who filled the house with representational portraits of the family. She also earned a business degree with a concentration in marketing, although in the business school her heart was really in accounting and economics. (“Well, I mean, my dad’s an accountant,” she explained.)

She turned to conceptual art in graduate school, but several years into her professional life, she had a crisis of dissatisfaction.

“I was halfway through a painting and just had to stop because I realized I wasn’t learning anything from them,” she said. “I went for about a year, maybe more, where I had no idea how to paint and whether I was really a painter.”

Her breakthrough came via some secondhand scraps of Belgian linen. After a fellow painter casually gave her some he’d trimmed from large canvasses, she rubbed their surfaces down with thin oil paint “as a kind of a prep for something else, some other total different plan I had for them,” she said. “And then I stretched them really kind of lazily, not really paying too much attention, and put them up on my wall.”

When she came back later, “I had these probably 10 or 15 [of them] on the wall, and I realized, ‘Oh, two of them are finished paintings,’” she said.

Her casual process had accidentally given her results that her critical eye recognized as artistically interesting, and she pushed. Since then, she said, her work in the studio has been as much about critical editing as creative intent as she contorts canvases and adds layers in increasingly complicated, unpredictable ways.

“If you’re looking for unexpected luck, you have to be a pretty critical editor,” she said. “So much of your day is just this kind of process and stuff happening that’s not that exciting or that’s a failure. Sometimes it’s really boring, and then every once in a while, this really amazing thing happens, and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s all worth it.’”

To read Digital America’s interview with Rommel, conducted by Izzy Pezzulo, ’18, go to digitalamerica.org/julia-rommel-q-a.