Growing up near Paris, Julie Curtiss (b. 1982) was able to feast on centuries of great art—a childhood now evident in the hints of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres lingering just beneath her sensually charged surfaces.
During her studies at the Ecole Nationale Superieur des Beaux-Arts, Paris, Curtiss spent a semester abroad in Chicago. She loved Chicago but, ironically, did not find her way to the work of Christina Ramberg (1946-1995), the Chicago Imagist to whom she is often compared, until people started to point out similarities in their work. Ramberg is certainly a soul sister.
Like Ramberg, Curtiss peoples her oil paintings with female bodies, accented with flowing patterns resembling hair. Swirls of stylized tresses cover unexpected things—birds, bodies, butts, hats, and hams. Curtiss doesn’t mind being grouped in the camp of Surrealist women painters, as evidenced by her inclusion in the 2017 trans-historical show “Dreamer’s Awake” at White Cube, London. She shares a reverence for illogical oppositions with Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and Gertrude Abercrombie. Incongruities, such as long, manicured, witchy nails holding a fish or lobster claw, or naked sunbathers at the beach with tightly cropped overly smooth bodies and pronounced nipples, compel the viewer of these strangely playful yet formally clean paintings to take a second look.
From Curtiss’s current studio, in Dumbo, Brooklyn, she can look out through a wall of windows onto the East River, where ferries meander from Brooklyn to Wall Street and back. She won a year of free space here through the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program. Her studio walls are lined with paintings, in various stages of completion, destined for the Independent Fair, and an upcoming solo show at Anton Kern. Her career has recently taken off, and she is now faced with the happy dilemma of producing enough work to feed a number of shows.
One work table is strewn with long clumps of sleek black human hair, which will be configured into sculptures. Curtiss once said in an interview that when she was a child she stumbled upon a suitcase in the family attic containing a braid of her mother’s hair. It was brown instead of the gray she associated with her mother. That disembodied artifact, unchanged by time, became a talisman of sorts.
A modestly sized painting of a tightly cropped female torso, covered with her signature patterns of hair leans against a wall. A hand reaches in from each side, pinching the nipples. The painting is a reference to an anonymous, late-16th century Fontainebleau School painting in the Louvre of two naked sisters in a bathtub, one pinching the other’s nipple, which is now thought to be a symbol of pregnancy. Curtiss fully translates the impact of that work. Her swirls of yellow-tinged hair take on an animal magnetism, and the nipple pinch evokes an "on" switch bringing this hybrid body to life. The combination of weirdness with Curtiss’ rigorous technique stirs the senses in new ways, undermining our rote responses to common objects and experiences. These compositions feel a bit like the work of a chef who pairs unlikely tastes or textures, which at first repel us, then offer a surprising satisfaction.
“I want you to touch it with your eyes -- the tactile, the primal.”
— Julie Curtiss
Another painting in progress is a square image of the back of a head, its hair parted down the middle. One half has long tresses and the other has multiple short tufts. Here, explicitly, is a central feature of her work, in both style and content: the dueling conditions of the natural and the manicured, the wild and the kempt, The soft violet background carries light, but without any hints of brush strokes. There’s a clean-cut, graphic, even illustrational perfection in these paintings that comes as much from the stylizations of comics, Charles Burns or perhaps Chris Ware, as from her art historical sources. Curtiss says, “I want you to touch it with your eyes -- the tactile, the primal.”
At LaGuardia airport, a few hours after my studio visit with Curtiss and tired from a week of work and cold weather, my attention was drawn to a crowd of people around me at the gate. Their hair seemed ridiculous, each head a tippy sculpture on the platform of a body. I scanned the colors, textures, and highlights, the fountains of hair gathered on top of heads. There was the well-behaved hair of the First-Class jetsetter, and farther down the line the chaotically thick, glossy fall of abundant young tresses. It’s as if I never before noticed the strangeness of this, how we humans take such giant aesthetic leaps, every day, as we navigate the natural order of growth and decline.
Curtiss’s influences range as far and as randomly as that crowd at LaGuardia. Whether it is the ghost of Roger Brown, Ingres, Degas, or Christina Ramberg haunting her, it doesn’t matter. Curtiss brings something new of her own, and she is well on her way to securing a place in the pantheon of slick, stylized visual wonders gesturing toward the human condition.