Julie Curtiss’ works in a few words: Hairy cakes and faceless bodies. An interview about mind games, threatening hands and her idol Meret Oppenheim.
Born in Paris and based in Brooklyn, Julie Curtiss is the third of four artists forming part of the interview series “Surrealism Reloaded” – with Jessica Stoller, Inka Essenhigh, and Rose Nestler. Their work is equally inspired by Surrealist motives and themes. Following in the footsteps of the Fantastic Women these four artists do not only revive Surrealism but re-interpret its topics, such as femininity, from a highly contemporary perspective.
Curtiss’ pieces are dominated by female bodies (no faces), hair (on everything), nails (often overgrown), and food (lots of cake). She is known for her precise, graphic style and psychologically charged themes revolving around female identity and narratives.
Let’s start by talking a little bit about your process.
My paintings often originate from mental images. They come to me as I take a stroll, meditate, during insomnia, or when I look at a painting, a movie, an event from everyday life. They emanate from free associations, a thought takes the shape of an image, which leads to another... a little bit like playing a game of telephone with myself. The thought branches out, more and more distorted, and eventually something strikes me to the point that I sketch it. I will then work on the sketch to refine the idea, simplifying the outlines, to convey it more efficiently.
Interesting! So, could you pick one of your paintings and walk us through the themes you are specifically interested in?
Among other things, I work on the slippery notions of identity. There is often a duality or a doubling in the characters I paint. In the painting “Triplette” (2019) the three characters look like clones. There is something primitive about the way they prune each other, like primates. It calls to mind a trove of sayings like “picking someone’s brain” or “getting in someone’s head”. In psychology, the attic of a house often represents the higher subconscious mind, but simply put it is also a place of storage that shelters boxes of personal and familial memorabilia. The repetition of the main figure, in addition to the repetitive grain of the wood, summons up ideas of patterns and cycles, collective knowledge and behaviors passed down from one generation to the other.
I see. Similar to the Surrealists you are very interested in psychology and the subconscious mind. What does Surrealism mean for you and what kind of role does it play in your work?
“Surrealist” has become an adjective. What people call “surreal” in arts today is a certain set of aesthetic qualities emulating the uncanny, unexpected juxtaposition, the mix of everyday and the imaginative. Today’s resurgence of a surrealism current is quite different from its origins. After reading Luis Buñuel’s autobiography “My Last Sigh”, I realized there were philosophical and political components at the heart of the movement. A lot of the things the Surrealists fought for – repudiation of the established way of thinking and aesthetic – are now a little more integrated in our modern societies and almost fully in the art world itself.
Personally, I think that psychology was most decisive for my artistic growth. I have been interested in Jungian psychology and the idea of archetypes ever since I made art. The Surrealists embraced Freudian psychology and utilized it as a creative tool to liberate their subconscious minds. I am fascinated with the inherent structure of the subconscious and while I feel it is essential to keep my works open ended, I also believe in the power of meaning, which is carried collectively and individually through symbols, myths, and archetypes. In many ways, I feel that female surrealism is more in line with this approach.
Absolutely. If you had to pick one, which artist from the “Fantastic Women” exhibition feels closest to you?
I feel kinship with many of artists from “Fantastic Women”. Of course, I have always been extremely drawn to the intensity of Louise Bourgeois and the multiplicity of her practice. I also remember clearly the first time I came about the sculptures of Dorothea Tanning at the Centre Pompidou in the late nineties, they etched themselves into my memories. But lately, Meret Oppenheim is probably the one artist I feel most strongly related to. I have avoided looking at her art for a long time. I am glad I did recently though, as I was about to make another sculpture very similar to her “Gloves” (1985). It is truly confounding how similar our sensibilities and how interconnected our subconscious minds are, even generations apart.
Yes, her cup with fur comes to mind, I can totally see your connection with Oppenheim! Another subject that is an integral part of your work and of many female Surrealist artists is the female body. Why?
My art often seems preoccupied with the body and how it relates to the soul, nature, and culture. It seems to me that women are connected to their bodies in a singular way. There’s something grounding, bordering on burdening about women’s bodies, and yet uplifting too, like our connection to the cosmos and our menstrual cycle. Women – and their bodies – continue to fascinate the collective imagination, we are muses and models. Despite the fact that women have always made art and mastered crafts, our bodies seemed to prevail over our voices, we didn’t represent or narrate the world from our point of view. What I am trying to do – alongside many generations of artists – is reclaiming the narrative thread surrounding the female body. It just starts with the body, an awakening.
Very interesting! Female friendships and networks were vital for the women artists in the 30s and 40s. You’re very successful on Instagram, do you think the platform is the new salon for the female squad?
Ha! Yes, I believe in a way that Instagram revolutionized the international artistic field. Friendships and networking are vital for the survival of the underdog. Instagram is all about collaboration and curiosity: sharing visibility, I show you, you show me. It’s an exchange. I could see how women artists, who haven’t secured a place in the established art market, gained an invaluable self-promoting tool. Early on, Instagram bypassed the middleman to put emerging collectors in contact with emerging artists.
That’s how I got my start: a little bit of visibility and a modest collector following. I also made some early significant connections thanks to Instagram with fellow women artists who later became great friends, like Hein Koh or Loie Hollowell, to name a few. As my career evolved though, the tool changed for me, too. Unfortunately, I know a lot of artists who are left on the margins of the platform, I don’t think it is conducive for all art practices. So, I would say: Yes, it’s a new salon, but it won’t replace pre-existing networks. I am part of a women artists Crit/book club group. It is very much old fashion, working with word to mouth... and it works great!
When I saw your piece “Quarantine” 2018, it felt so fitting to the corona crisis. How has the lockdown changed your work?
I can’t help seeing premonitions of the situation everywhere in my images. A filter that affects the reading of my own art. It’s powerful.