Raised in the eastern suburbs of Paris, abstract painter Julie Curtiss stands firm in her belief that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced people to look at themselves. While she’s adamant that the rippling effect of the devastation taking place in 2020-2021 is temporary, she claims people can’t understand what’s happening collectively without looking inward—and that perhaps, by taking the time to self-reflect while stuck at home, we can pave the way for a better-informed and more connected future. Let it be said that the New York-based artist isn’t political in the broad sense of the term. Her work is rooted in the female identity, focusing on vibrant close-up paintings zoomed in so close the viewer inevitably becomes lost in her largescale canvases. Showcasing the fine line between inspiring ideas and summoning questions, Curtiss creates both overwhelming nuance and in-your face specificity that jointly encourage observers to project their own experiences into the art they’ve come to appreciate. Ambiguity is key, along with the paradox of the human experience. These, of course, are pillars of Curtiss’s work.
Brought up by a French mother and a Vietnamese father, the artist—an only child—visited museums on a regular basis in her early years. She found herself infatuated with Degas and captivated by much of the late nineteenth century; in this same vein, pulling stillness from movement plays a key role in her own work today. The artist has lived in France and Germany, Japan and the United States, working with the likes of JeffKoons and Brian Donnelly (the latter known as KAWS) before making a name for herself. In 2004, she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago by way of a Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Award, subsequently earning her degree from l’Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris in 2006. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that Curtiss cemented her signature style composed of faceless portraits, skewed digits, and curved bodies masked by thick hair, macro-representations of food and drink, and seemingly simple life objects.
Ask the artist what motivates her, and she’ll cite psychology; now in her 30s, Curtiss has been in therapy since she was 16. The painter explains how everyone possesses a shadow that is integral to the self, and that incorporation of the shadow into the work can be largely therapeutic. Since the shadow represents the darkest parts of a person’s being, she has set out to capture this sense of others by way of projected experiences. Through her paintings, Curtiss endeavors to serve as the viewer’s own shadow, culminating in an experience emblematic of gazing through a screen, forcing introspection. Featureless beings, isolated body parts, accessories and food warped into abstraction in contrast to frequent monochromatic backdrops all comprise elements embraced by Curtiss. And, at this point in time, it is certain that Curtiss has given the female identity an innovative, grotesque, and utterly human overhaul the public has grown to love. “I get really excited when people really see art as it really should be,” she says, “the most successful art pieces are when people get something from it that's spiritual.”
Charles Moore: So you grew up outside of Paris. Tell me about those early years and your earliest experiences with art.
Julie Curtiss: I grew up in Les Pavillons-sous-Bois, which are the eastern suburbs of Paris. There's a lot like what you would call the “projects.” It was more a residential type of area, a bit different from Paris itself.
My mom is French,my dad Vietnamese, and so I felt I had kind of cool parents. My dad was a really good photographer and my mom was always interested in art, so they brought me along to museums and we traveled quite a bit. I had quite a liberal upbringing. I remember going to the museum and being really into Degas because he painted dancers—and I really loved dancing. All those late-nineteenth-century works really captivated me.
When did you first learn that you had the talent for drawing or painting?
As an only child, I was naturally inclined to drawing and all kinds of crafts. I’m glad my parents encouraged me to pursue whatever I had a fancy for. I would just lose myself in it and be captivated by the flow and mood of the moment.
Is that why you decided to go to art school instead of a more traditional university?
Yes. As a teenager, I experienced a lot of anxiety, so I used art to channel my nervous energy. Art was also my favorite subject in school, too. So, naturally, I wanted to get into art school. There were never any other options, and my parents were always supportive. My mother was always very savvy, so right away she was able to find a suitable prep class that was also free. It was experimental, but it was really good and enabled me to get into more recognized art schools of my choice later.
The French system is different from the American system. If you want to go to a public school that's free, you have to qualify for admission, and that can be pretty difficult. From then on, your whole education is assured. So I attended the Beaux-Arts school in Paris. BeauxArts really intimidated me at first because it felt really elitist. But I got over that.
I was actually looking at your CV and it seems like you jumped around from one art school to the next. You went to Germany and then Chicago and then back to France. Tell me about that experience.
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