Julie Oakes: Justine and Juliette
Robert C. Morgan
I first met Julie Oakes in Venice, a perfect location for realist painting given the works of such luminaries as Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione, and Bellini. I was impressed by the work she was doing, although we rarely had much opportunity to discuss it. She impressed me as a loner who was intensely involved in absorbing the art and culture of the Venetians. She would go out on her own in the morning to the Academia or to La Scoula de San Rocco and return late in the afternoon where I would occasionally see her, portfolio under arm, crossing diagonally across Campo San Barnaba. She maintained friendly relations with various American colleagues, but otherwise kept mostly to herself.
One afternoon, months later, at a reception in New York, I discovered that Ms. Oakes was a Canadian, then living and working in Manhattan. Over the years, I would occasionally see her - dressed to the teeth - at various art openings and cocktail parties in West Chelsea, but otherwise I had not a clue as to what she was doing. Then one day in the summer of 2005, I received a package from Julie Oakes, which included catalogs of her paintings and two books of her writings. I glanced through the images and starting reading one of the books, entitled The Revolving Door. I was immediately taken into a world that was outside my view of the New York art scene. The author was involved in the world of sex on a level that intrigued me. Her semi-fictitious adventures were recorded in artful prose under the pseudonym of the libidinous Justine who presumed to be the sister of the more reserved sister, Juliette. Those familiar with the writings of the legendary eighteenth century French writer and aristocrat, Marquis de Sade, will immediately recognize these two names as being personages in two of his most famous books from that pre-Revolutionary time period.
In her first two narratives, entitled Quercia Stories and The Revolving Door, Ms. Oakes narrates the sexual exploits of her heroine Justine in the first person. There are brief moments when Justine may suddenly embrace the identity of her sister/persona Juliette in order to avoid an uncomfortable situation. But, for the most part, the narrative is given solely to Justine as she recounts her story of repeated sexual encounters with men who are travelers and often married. Throughout these encounters, she gives herself openly in a manner that is unabashedly available. Justine is an elegant woman, not a slut. She wears delicate lingerie, drinks fine wine, is clearly intelligent, and attends sophisticated cultural events.
In a note to Julie, I confessed my interest in her work and my dismay that I had never really pursued her talent. A few months passed whereupon I received a telecommunication from her inquiring as to whether or not I would be interested in writing a preface to the third volume of her trilogy whereupon I might include comments as to the nature of her practice as a visual artist. I responded in a reticent, though delighted mood, suggesting that I could do this, and that I had met the illustrious Anais Nin on two occasions and had worked professionally with the art historian Catherine Millet - two women who are known not only for their intellectual prowess but also for their extraordinary contributions to feminine erotic literature. I saw Julie’s work in a similar way, and therefore unabashedly took on the task.
A point worth mentioning that explains my reticence; I am not an ethnographer - an occupation that Ms. Oakes fictionally personifies - but an art historian and critic. Therefore, I am outside the social sciences in terms of a discipline. I have not been trained to maintain the kind of objectivity that ethnographers employ in their work. I know virtually nothing about the underground sex world in New York and therefore do not have the qualified research or the personal experience by which to know or to judge the accuracy of the author’s accounts. In reading Julie’s trilogy (the over-all title is Human Sacrifice) I may empathize with Justine’s frustrations, her joys, and travails, but on an “academic” level, I am clearly outside the scene. My connection with the author is from the aesthetic perspective of art criticism, not from the objective point of view of ethnography. I have seen and heard Julie Oakes speak at The New School University in New York and was highly impressed by her ability to hold her ground at the podium. During the question and answer session, Oakes never wavered from the point and employed anecdotes only when the intention was clear. Julie was absolutely marvelous in this regard.
In this third volume of the trilogy, entitled Conscientious Perversity, the situation changes somewhat from the two previous accounts. Justine’s sister, Juliette, takes a more predominant role in the narrative. Male subjects from the previous two books, such as Tiziano and the fictitious editor, weave into the story along with several new characters, both male and female, including Paolo and Peter, Giovanni and Kiki, Robin and Joelle. There is more attention given to bisexuality, thus adding a new dimension to unraveling the mystery – or mystique – that seems, in part, to pervade the motivation behind Justine’s adventures. The sex clubs, frequently encountered in The Revolving Door, a topic given that forms the mise-en-scene for much of the narrative is dropped and thus, the public envelope is abandoned that informs many of the sexual advances and encounters in the early books. Conscientious Perversity describes the social repercussions and associations that branch off from Justine’s personal encounters.
In Chapter One, there is a line worthy of quotation: “When you turn sexuality into art – you have to lie to protect identities. You mythologize your characters and since you also have a role, you invent yourself as a character. If this is about art then there must be a philosophy that is evident.” And here is another: “If our friendship could be more of a conversation, then I would be conscientious of my perversity for now I am only conscientious in my perversity and it is that which causes the guilt.”
What strikes me about these lines is their astute commentary, their unabashed straightforward pronouncement – that sexuality cannot be divorced from either identity or relationships. The fact is that as human beings we are inextricably intertwined, whether we recognize it or not. Sex is constructed within our identities and within our relationships as well. It plays an intrinsic part in both of these, even as it is removed. More than intrinsic, it is essential to our manner of being. In Chapter Twenty-two, the narrator states: “At the far end of the path of conscientious perversity there is a thin boundary. The limits of love and knowledge butt up against this boundary. They are in the neighboring realm. There is a danger that influences from the perverse can sneak through the thin boundary and pollute love and knowledge and also the opposite is possible, that love and knowledge can taint the perversity.”
It is this thin line that Juliette, the writer, rides on behalf of her sister – her alter ego and persona – Justine. Who will survive amid the tension of this delicate chaos? This is the conundrum that Julie leaves for the reader to decipher.
As for my critical take on the visuals that accompany Human Sacrifice, it would take an essay of considerable length to deal specifically with her concerns. Still there are some general observations I would like to evoke. Upon first glance, the paintings and drawings reproduced in the book function more at an oblique angle in relation to the writing rather than as illustrations that visualize the narrative. They are, in fact, more psychological, even prescient than they are prescribed in terms of how they attract or distract us from the text. Therefore, I would be hard pressed to categorize Ms. Oakes as an illustrator. Rather the paintings function as a parallel discourse to the narrative and therefore we can assume that they are intended to hold equal weight in terms of our response.
I am convinced of the author’s debt to painting as, for example, when I encounter the series of works from Book Three. Having seen the Oledon Redon exhibition of prints at The Museum of Modern Art in New York last December, I indirectly discovered a clue to Julie’s work. Illustrations serve a purpose in relation to the narrative, and indeed Julie’s paintings do this. One may refer to them as the conceptual infrastructure or the underbelly of the narrative. Whatever one chooses to call them, they are capable of shifting their context just as the phantasmagorical images of Redon could move from the page of the book to the walls of a museum. The context is an open one, not rigidly defined. Julie’s paintings are both symbolic and expressionistic to be sure. I am less convinced of their surreality. Rather I see them as a kind of psychically charged potion, a drug in visual terms that opens the door of perception to sexuality as belonging to the larger realm of consciousness.
This is essentially what Redon did, what the poet William Blake did, and what Julie Oakes is searching for throughout the parallel visual/verbal journey that belongs so emphatically to her Trilogy on sexuality. The paintings impress me as being conscientious as well as perverse. Either way, they represent important aspects of our internal reality – a reality that the writer Anias Nin argued was the necessary passage toward the future of the novel (1969). I sense that Julie Oakes is not far off from this position except for the fact that all the paintings are hers. Whereas Anais Nin secretly collaborated with her husband (Hugh Guiler) who provided etchings for the pages of her early novels, Oakes takes both sides of her brain (visual and verbal) and juxtaposes them as a new cohesion.
I say cohesion – not coherence – because I do not see her paintings in formal terms. In contrast, they are symbolic and expressionist. They transmit a disturbing juxtaposition not only between human beings but also between humans and animals. In this sense, Julie’s paintings may open the civilized mind to rethink the latency of shamanism in our current era of decadence. It is an interesting speculation and an attribute that places Julie Oakes squarely within the present, which means she may actually be ahead of her time.