Julie Curtiss focuses on the relationship between nature and culture in her figurative painting, sculpture and gouache on paper, exposing and reworking female archetypes through a surrealist sense of the uncanny. ‘In my images, I enjoy the complementarity of humour and darkness, the uncanny and the mundane, grotesque shapes and vivid colours’, she has commented.
Born and raised in Paris, Curtiss studied at l'Ėcole des Beaux-Arts before moving first to Japan and then to New York, where she now lives and works. Employing a highly stylised visual language, she draws on a history of figurative painting including 18th- and 19th-century French painting, as well as the Chicago Imagists and the ‘pop’ imagery of comic books, manga and illustration. Her subject matter centres on the female body, through deconstructed and fragmented details like heads or legs, or through the symbols of stereotyped ‘femininity’ such as long nails, flowing hair or high heels. In a similar manner to Post-Impressionist painters, Curtiss mines her subjects from contemporary, everyday life, representing its curious, small details in cropped and ambiguous compositions that are erotically charged, and cinematic and dreamlike in feel, interweaving the general and specific in ways that are at once fantastical, precise and unsettling. Through the use of unexpected juxtapositions, of subject with object, of the seen and the implied, and an exaggerated portrayal of cartoon-like forms, her paintings are infused with a direct and deadpan humour, revealing the uncanny within the banal and the grotesque and surreal undertones of human characteristics and behaviour.
Using a range of different media including oil, acrylic or gouache, Curtiss’ paintings feature a variety of treatments and textures in matt, unmodulated colours which are finely mixed to achieve a precise, tonal effect. Psychologically driven, her work adopts Surrealist strategies of picture making, using a shallow depth of field and close-cropping to leave parts of an image out, resulting in a sense of intimate objectivity that hints at underlying sexual or fetishistic activities. In a painting such as Woman in High Heels (2019) for example, a truncated pair of female legs emerge from a Rousseau-style bush, while in Triplette (2019), three nude female figures intently examine each other’s long hair. In these works, Curtiss situates the viewer as a predator or furtive voyeur, allowing the viewer to glimpse what should remain hidden. Derailing the sense of a privileged gaze, the viewer is left askew: complicit and uncomfortable, in a manner that recalls the authorial strategies used in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (1946-66) or Robert Gober's Untitled Leg (1989-90). As Curtiss has said: ‘I am interested in nuances, in complexity, in the in-between, in complementarity.’
The female figure is always faceless in Curtiss’ work: an archetype, symbol or stand-in without defining characteristics. Whether turning away from our gaze or veiled by rope-like tresses of hair, her form is often fragmented but powerful, questioning of a history of female objectification and re-appropriating what Curtiss terms the ‘tools of communication and seduction’. Nails extend into sharp talons, nipples become graphic cones and hair is Medusa-like, both hypnotic and attractive, abstracted and reconfigured into a series of repetitive, twisting tendrils. In Carapace (2017), for example, hair set in rollers appears strangely fish-like or in Chills (2018), a hand with sharp red nails moves towards a luxurious head of hair, the pale line of its parting bifurcating patterned ridges to the left and right of the canvas.
Curtiss has commented that her subject matter emerges from ‘[...] the surrealist elements of modern life, in which our corporeal appetites are titillated with the extravagant, abnormal and bizarre.’ Frequently reusing the same, insistent motifs from one painting to another, objects such as cigarettes, teapots or long boots appear familiar and strange and soft, as if covered with down. Food is a consistent theme, both seductive and repulsive in equal measure. A slice of pie is covered with tight ridges of hair (Another piece of pie, 2017), for example, or a piece of sushi is formed from a neatly severed finger (Appetizer, 2017). In a series of gouaches, a female head lies on a plate (Food for Thought, 2019), a face is obscured by an exotic palm leaf (Plume, 2018), or a diptych mirrors an ice cream cone with a twisted shell (Ice Scream 1 and 2, 2019).
In D’après l’origine du monde (2016), Curtiss draws inspiration from Courbet’s infamous depiction of female sexuality (L’Origine du monde, 1866). Veiling the partial, prone body with stylised loops and coils of hair, she obscures her female subject, thereby breaking with the scrutinising objectivity of the original. Presenting us with an animalistic female energy and – as Courbet’s title reminds us – the origins of life itself, Curtiss draws attention to the virgin / whore dichotomy, while inflecting any erotic potential with a phantasmagorical, sinister edge.
Julie Curtiss was born in 1982 in Paris, France and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Recent solo exhibitions include 'Wildlife', Anton Kern Gallery, New York (2019); 'Altered States' , Various Small Fires, Los Angeles (2018) and 'Soft Shells' , 106 Green, Brooklyn, New York (2017). Group exhibitions include La Patinoire Royale—Galerie Valérie Bach, Brussels (2020); Perrotin, Seoul (2019); Clearing, New York (2019) and White Cube Bermondsey, London (2017).