First published: Summer 2018
Julia Sisi’s (b. 1957) fantastical drawings can resemble coloured illustration books or street art. Her visual vocabulary and repertoire rely on her intuitive development of aesthetic strategies used in illustration and graphic design, with a personal iconography. Graphic design elements and illustration techniques are present in the work of some of the most admired self-taught artists: Edward M. Gómez has, for example, defined Adolf Wölfli as a “visionary graphic designer” and a powerful “visual communicator”. Aesthetic decisions and visual resources similar to Wölfli’s are also evident in Sisi’s work: rich patterning, vibrant colours, powerful lines, and tensions between improvisation and highly structured compositions. Images associated with water and fluidity are also present in the work of both artists. Gómez has described a sense of flowing water in Wölfli’s work, and some of the energy and inspiration in Sisi’s drawings comes from oceans and rivers, too. Sisi’s most recent drawings, her “Hypnagogia Visions and Visitations” series, were inspired by her lucid dreams, and by the river that runs alongside her property in the Indre region of central France, like some of Wölfli’s designs were inspired by “scenarios of dreams”.
Inner Animal, 2016, ink and acrylic on canvas, 19.7 x 27.5 ins. / 50 x 69.9 cm
Sisi’s use of black backgrounds came after a dream in which she was drawing with a red light, as if the lines were filaments. “If you close your eyes”, she said, “the background is black, so when you sleep the background is black.” After that dream, she started to work on a black surface, reproducing the sensation of drawing with light, using Posca felt pens to create the fluid filaments of light. The symbolic elements in her new series is also inspired by recent and long-past memories. Such highly symbolic content characterises her “Whispering Faces” (2015–16) and “Liquid Mirror” (2016) series.
Sisi works with acrylic paint for large areas and to paint thick lines, then uses markers to populate the flat areas with symbols, characters, cabalistic numbers and words that to her are magic. A motif of stairs recurs, connecting different levels in the “Whispering Faces” and “Liquid Mirror” series, and there are circular or spiral shapes that, like mandalas, are full of dualities, cardinal points, “arithmetereological” numbers, and characters that represent either metaphysically or symbolically an intimate personal microcosm. For Sisi, her faces are self-portraits as well as portraits of imaginary people. She insists that all of her drawings in the “Whispering Faces” and “Liquid Mirror” series narrate personal stories: “Those faces are talking to us, or more precisely, are using visual languages to whisper to us about my life or the life stories of other people.” Understanding all of the semiotics of the symbols, signals and signs in her work would require knowing about her struggles with identity, her constant search for freedom, her experience as a migrant and the nomadic spirit that informs all her artwork.