Piecing the puzzle in Julie Curtiss’ paintings

Artist Julie Curtiss combines bold, daring aesthetics with the uncanny to create her stunning paintings in oils and gouache. Her work depicts scenes that appear straight out of a graphic novel, but one that was created by a surrealist. Here, strands of hair become electrifying currents of colour, fingernails become alive with a pulsating glow. Curtiss’s work magically depicts the figure while still abstracting its form so that identity is not yet revealed. Instead, her subjects’ faces are absent, hidden behind purple hands or long, wild hair that consume the figure. Often cropping her compositions around a hand, an arm, or a finger, the fragmented body becomes a reoccurring image within her body of work. The artist discusses these hidden identities and disjointed bodies referring to the “elusivity of the self,” provoking the unknown.

Originally from France, Curtiss lives and works in New York City, where her forthcoming solo exhibition will be taking place at Anton Kern Gallery.

Join us in conversation as we discuss with the artist the influences that inform the iconography in her work, the transformations her style has undergone during her travels throughout the years, and the many things she has learned along the way.

Julie Curtiss. Photography by Dan McMahon. 

AMM: Hi Julie! You were raised in France, studied in USA and France, and lived in Tokyo for some time – three countries with significant cultural and historical heritage. How have such experiences influenced your artistic vision and career?

JC: Each country influenced me in very different ways. My first exposure to arts was in France, through my parents. When I was a kid, they brought me to shows at museums, they sent me to the conservatory for a musical and dance education… In a way I had a very traditional cultural upbringing.

When I first came to Chicago for my studies it really changed the way I saw the world. In America I think people are less worried about what others think. On the other side, there is generally less critical thinking in comparison to France. In any case, I felt a new sense of freedom in the US that I never felt in France. Also I became more acquainted with subculture and the music scene there.

Tokyo was more like a strange parenthesis in my life. I stayed there for a year. My time there was difficult because the culture felt somewhat oppressive. However it was an important year of my life, right after graduation, I had to become financially independent while pursuing my art. It was hard but also freeing. I realized I didn’t have to please my teachers anymore, and get grades, I truly could do what I wanted. Also I incorporated a lot of Japanese culture into my art.

AMM: Now, living and working in New York, how do you find the art scene in the big city?

JC: There is a multitude of art scenes in New York. After having lived here for a while, it’s becoming a little less overwhelming and eventually I started to navigate different groups, make connections and friends. I love the entrepreneurial spirit of the New York artist, curating shows, visiting their peers, organizing events, and running project spaces. I know many people who have families, jobs, their own art practice and after all that still find time to run a gallery space with their friends!

AMM: How has your practice developed over the years? Were there major milestones?

JC: I think my art is completely linked to my private life.

Chicago broadened my artistic awareness; changing environment helped me to open up to different types of practices including conceptual art.

After school, I worked as a security person at the Centre George Pompidou in Paris. There I was very impressed by a series of black and white drawings by Mike Kelley. A few months later in Japan, I started a series of works on paper with cartoon-like imagery, with big droopy eyed, depressed characters. This was the beginning of a more graphic style in my art. When I came back to France, I found out that my mother had cancer and the 3 years that followed were dark years. My art changed a lot and became a way for me to funnel my anxiety. I turned inward with my art, trying to make sense out of life.

Finally, my art went through a new phase a few years after I settled in New York. I slowly healed from my mother’s death and my art became lighter and more in phase with new life challenges: affirming myself as a woman, embracing the multiple facets within myself, engaging more with the outer world.

Julie Curtiss. “Piggy Tail”, acrylic, vinyl and oil on canvas, 40 x 32 inches

AMM: What painting traditions influence you?

JC: I find a lot of my inspiration in French and European painters/sculptors from the 19th and 20th centuries… because a lot of these artworks are popular, I enjoy how they worked their way into people’s subconscious. They are iconic and therefore they work on several levels, subliminally but also overtly. People love drawing connections, and understanding an image within a frame of references. I like to use old masters and divert the meaning of their works, adding anachronistic elements or simply borrow parts that are timeless. My attachment to some images is also sentimental (Degas, Manet, Vuillard, Ingres…), they were the first to draw me in and work on my imagination as a child.

AMM: Who are the figures you depict; would you say your work is autobiographical?

JC: I believe there are similarities between the way I paint and the way a writer writes. My figures are a mixture of personal experiences, of projection, archetypes, borrowed elements and observations. For example, there is a lot pertaining to the housewife stereotype in my work, but obviously I am not one and don’t even know any in the traditional sense of the term. I am interested in the stereotype of the housewife and how it resonated in us.

AMM: Your work borders the lines between realistic figuration and abstraction, the characters and scenes in your work appear dreamlike. How are you able to find the balance between the two?

JC: The reason why I enjoy cartoon and sometimes I use a cartoonish or illustrative style, is because I like to simplify a form (abstract) while retaining essential details, so they can work upon one’s imagination with great vividness.

AMM: Your paintings have a very graphic feel.

JC: As mentioned above, I like to paint on the edge of illustration.

But also, I have worked with gouache for a long time. I love the flatness of gouache and its quick drying qualities. I tend to draw rather than paint, that’s why gouache is ideal for me. You can go into fine details, like for hair. After painting a series of gouache works on paper, I enjoyed it so much that I tried to replicate the same qualities onto the canvas. I use vinyl, acrylic and oil paint in ways that mimic the gouache finish.

Julie Curtiss. “No place like home”, acrylic and oil on panel, 24 x 36 inches

AMM: The female body is one of the most prominent features in art. What is its appeal for you, and why did it become a focus theme of your practice?

JC: My work is deeply personal, I am painting from my point of view, a woman’s point of view. Therefore I am concerned with a lot of issues that touch womanhood.

I like the idea that thus far men have represented the world, but over the past century women are slowly taking the narrative in their own hands and paint, write, sculpt… about the things they care about.

I enjoy being a woman painting woman. It’s a strange self-reflective exercise of being both the examiner and the examinee. And I particularly enjoy riffing on the works of old masters, shifting the viewer’s perception. In a way I paint about men painting women. Men are present in my work between the lines.

AMM: Why do many of your characters appear to hide their faces or look away?

JC: Painting faces can make subjects too specific or personal, like portraits. There is something satisfying about painting and looking at facial traits and expressions. By omitting the face, I want to frustrate the viewer. I can allude to a character’s personality and internal life by dropping clues here and there, and leave to the viewer the task of piecing the puzzle together.

Partially obscured faces, the fragmented bodies point to the elusivity of the self. The self cannot ever be fully grasped.

Julie Curtiss, “Appetizer”, gouache on paper, 12 x 9 inches

AMM: Let’s talk about hair. Why is it so evident in your work?

JC: Hair evokes the primordial in my work. With nails, it’s a part of our bodies that grows of its own and that we can sever off without pain. It refers to the wild, the untamed, the beast in us. In the myth, the hair on Medusa’s head is made out of snakes. In our societies, hair is combed and braided and the nails manicured. Women transcend these physical attributes for social ends… As a woman, I am interested in the way we fashion our bodies, to be reflected through the other’s eyes.

In my paintings, hair slowly started to leave the human head to proliferate to other things: animals, objects covered in hair… It’s a way of blurring boundaries between the inanimate and the living, between the internal and the external world. It’s also a way to appeal to the sense of touch, to our sensuality.

AMM: Can you comment on the inclusion of certain accented details in your paintings such as the nails, nipples, breasts, cigarettes, vaginas, heels and diverse female accessories?

JC: All the elements you mentioned belong to the realm of the body, or to the extended body, like prostheses (cigarettes, fake nails, heels…). The accessories become living extensions of the self. The natural body is enhanced and transformed by artefacts.

AMM: You frequently use food and drink motifs. Do they reference the feminine characters depicted in other paintings?

JC: Yes, foods and drinks hold an important place in my work. They are transformative and symbolic. For instance I often paint roasted turkeys. The physical resemblance (large breast of the bird) and also the sentimental image of the family gathering around home cooked meals … To me they clearly allude to something sacrificial in the role of the mother. Cannibalism is a recurring theme as well. I think it comes from the fact that women are literally and psychologically consumed in their lives, for instance during motherhood.

Julie Curtiss. “Chemtrails”, gouache on paper, 19 x 14 inches

AMM: Your palette is vivid and bold. What guides your colour choices?

JC: Drawing comes to me more easily than painting, which explains why my images are very graphic. I will change colors more than anything else when I work. Also, I rarely use a color out of the tube, I like to mix my own, which I think gives a retro feel to my work. Over the years, I believe that I developed a personal palette. I depend on that whenever I am struggling to find the colors that I see in my head.

AMM: Please take us through your daily studio rituals.

JC: I recently bought a digital piano, and started playing at the studio – I learned when I was a teen and I haven’t really played in 20 years. I work on a few favorites: Chopin, Debussy, Schubert, Satie… It clears my mind, time flies when I play. It’s a way for me to take breaks. I also enjoy listening to audio books occasionally while painting.

Another studio ritual is snacking! The coffee shop across the street has the best lemon cake… You can see how central food is in my life…

AMM: What are you reading and listening to at present; does the content inform your work?

JC: What I read or listen to often informs my work. For instance, last year, Elena Ferrante’s writing has been a lot in my head.

I am currently working on a small book project with SPHERES publication and Brigitte Mulholland from Anton Kern Gallery. I am trying to find writers to collaborate with… So I am reading a little more than usual! Since I am a fiction reader, I am enjoying the process very much. I recently discovered the writer Nick Mulgrew “The First Law of Sadness” and Lauren Groff “Delicate Edible Birds”. Both books are short stories collections and are engrossing in completely different ways.

AMM: You’ve successfully shown nationally and internationally; what advice can you share with others hoping to emulate such success?

JC: This is what I did when I was trying to get my work out there: Visit my peers, attend shows in my communities, organize shows, use social media to connect with others… but I would say before all, make the art that fulfills you.

AMM: We are excited to find out about your forthcoming solo exhibition in the Anton Kern Gallery. Could you tell us more about it? What lies ahead for you apart from that?

JC: So far I have tried to keep it one step at a time. My next step is the show at Anton Kern, it’s a pretty big deal to me and my main challenge is to produce the best work possible. All my focus is on it.

Find out more about the artist: www.juliecurtiss.com

Interview by Maria Zemtsova, text by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Magazine.

Julie Curtiss, “Blind hands”, gouache on paper, 12 x 9 inches