Julie Curtiss and I met in January of 2013 when we both attended a residency at Contemporary Artist Center at Woodside in Troy, New York. CAC is located in the historic Woodside Church built in 1868 and our studios and living areas were lit with stained glass windows. It was an incredibly cold and dark month and meeting Julie was one of the bright spots. We realized that we had a lot in common, both having attended SAIC and both living in Brooklyn. Julie was at the residency for two weeks and during that time she was working with gouache on paper. We talked about comic books, illustration and Sue Williams in relation to her work and we explored the area around Troy, NY visiting such sights at the Uncle Sam Bowling Lanes, the Troy Farmers Market and Howe Caverns.
I visited Julie at her studio in Bushwick Brooklyn on May 3, 2014. Her studio is on the second floor of a large studio building near the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg. The studio is semi-private and long with divider walls to make three spaces. Julie occupies the first space upon entering. Julie’s space is uncluttered and unnecessary items are stored in the storage space at the entrance. She has four related bodies of work in her studio. On the left wall, there is a large oil painting that depicts two strange almost ghostly figures. On the central wall there are several smaller portrait paintings on canvas. On the right wall there is a series of small portrait collages. And on the rear wall are two small paintings, a collection of found objects (hats) and sculptural wall pieces.
Julie and I spoke for 1.25 hours about her way of working in series, the influence of French post-impressionist painters, the fashion of Williamsburg Brooklyn and more.
Julie Curtiss was born in 1982 and grew up in a suburb of Paris, France. She is of Vietnamese and French Descent. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After graduation she moved to Tokyo, Japan and in 2010 she settled in Brooklyn. In 2012 she was a recipient of the Van Lier Fellowship from NYFA.
So when did you move into this studio?
I moved in about a year ago. I was subletting across the hallway before in the same building, but now I’m renting. It is cool that is only two blocks from my house. That helps a lot, but it is getting expensive around here. That is a downside. I’m lucky that it is cheaper than the average.
Do you know many people in your building? What do you think of the community here?
Bushwick/East Williamsburg is an area where the community is definitely strong. You get to know one person and then almost everybody knows each other eventually. You friend one person on Facebook and then you get invited to all these crazy openings all over the area. There is something every weekend— a lecture, a presentation, it keeps you pretty busy. Here there are a lot of people like trying to make it. Everyone is trying to open their own little space, which is cool because it inspires you to try to do your own shows and events. It is fun. There is a network with a lot of small galleries. I do know a lot of people here. I’m going to do my own little event soon called A Hot Mess, which I will tell you about later on. Bushwick Open Studios is the weekend of the 30th of May. There is going to be a benefit auction at Storefront where I will donate a work.
So tell me what is going on with your work now? I see you are doing more sculptural work and you are working on both paper and canvas.
Yes when I met you at the residency, I did focus a lot on gouache on paper, but I was kind of reaching the end of that series. It wasn’t exciting anymore. It took me a while to transition toward painting on canvas again. I always try different materials and people get confused saying, “But I thought you were doing that,” but I change. Before I did that I did some painting, I did some sculpture. It is like cycles. I have been thinking a lot about what my practice means. And how I change through these cycles and I just think I need to be working differently, more in a series. I combine a bit of all these series together.
As far as the content, I’m always looking for identity and also interested in nature and culture. Actually after you saw my gouaches—it became unsatisfying and then I went through a period where I cut through them and made collages from my leftover drawings that were going nowhere. That was fun and I was still using my drawings but I was creating a different story with them. Then I went toward painting on canvas and started this series of work that you see on the left wall. I think it is equally inspired from my life and my interest in fashion.
What are the materials of these paintings? It looks like you are using a lot of different materials.
It is oil, acrylic and spray paint. I like oil, but I am impatient. Most of the time it is acrylic. It is funny because I have been going back to looking a lot at French Painters from the end of the 19th century like Vuillard and Bonnard. People say my paintings remind them of Magritte sometimes.
Why do you feel drawn to those particular artists? Or is it the time period you are drawn to?
I feel like it is going back to my origins. Looking at the artwork that was made a long time ago. All these Post-Impressionists are talking about everyday life. They are looking at things around them and finding new ways to describe those things and I find that attractive. Fashion, people, and the intimate moments of life—those are things I find really interesting.
So are you imagining these people? Are they a memory of someone you saw when you were walking around experiencing the city? Or are they based on actual people?
Walking the street I get ideas sometimes. I never work from photographs. I always work from imagination because I really like how the imagination is flawed. You get all these interesting things in the flaws and sometimes you have a lot of parts that are missing. In this series it is a bit more like a memory—than an actual thing.
Within this series the details seem more important than the actual person. Her coat, her clothes, the specifics of the street, her hairstyle—these things are clear. But the face is obscured. Anyone could be inserted into the scene.
It is funny that you mention that. I guess I am interested in all that is expressed through fashion. I’m interested in how people are trying to express themselves especially in Bushwick and the personal way everyone is trying to emerge as an individual. In some ways they are all the same.
I am a woman and I am thinking about what it means to be a woman today and how I represent myself. I am representing women who are trying to represent themselves. There are a lot of layers.
It is really interesting to me. It seems that the root of it is critical, but not in a negative way.
Yes. But I know you are questioning.
It is also fun. Something that I forget to mention is that it seems the subjects are aware. Almost like they are posing for someone. The viewer is present somehow.
Do you think that is some reference to how the internet has changed us and now we are constantly aware of how we come across to each other?
Absolutely. With Facebook and all social media, people are trying to control their image. That is part of our everyday life. Image control.
So do you think you would make these same paintings if you didn’t live in Bushwick?
Maybe not. Yeah, I don’t think I would.
Do you think Bushwick residents who see these paintings recognize your critique, and see that they are specifically about this place and time?
Yes. I think people who live here can understand it but people who don’t live here may not understand. Like for instance, my French friends definitely see it differently. In congress, I am trying to show how strange things can look here.
I like artists like John Wesley. He takes an image and then makes it stranger and stranger, just by simplifying it in a weird way. That is another theme to my work that is culture vs. nature. A lot of the positions of the women within the paintings are strange and their ass is out. It is not flattering. It reminds us of the animal part of women and sexual behavior. We are all really animals who try to communicate things non-verbally through our appearance. Which I do, we all do. I’m trying to capture how weird and strange and tribal we are—especially with the fashion in Williamsburg/Bushwick. Like the French painters who were influenced by Asian art and African art.
So are you currently working on the street scenes, or is that on older series and now you are more onto the portraits?
Yes so after the street scenes I moved to this series of portraits. Everything is still fresh. I am super productive. I am trying to work myself into a new series so I can extend more time.
So for you, is a series a set number or does it depend? When do you know when to move to the next one?
I can come back to it. Sometimes I just switch to something else. Maybe I have something more to say. These portraits are about wanting to combine women’s hairstyles with men’s facial hair. To create something that is not obvious at first but kind of gender ambiguous characters. It is fun.
So do you see these portraits as being even more imaginary than the street scene series?
How did the facial hair portrait series begin? It seems like the street scene series is inspired by living in Bushwick and watching people. What brought you to the facial hair series?
I started with one then I made the second one because it was fun and fast. For that series it is so easy, I just have to switch, just have to make a new haircut. Mustaches and beards are trendy right now. Fashion and haircuts are a different way to express yourself.
This series is more personal. Gender roles are interesting to me. I feel like I grew up in a house where roles weren’t defined. My dad was my mom. He cooked for me, took care of me and picked me up from school and stuff like that. My mom was the person who was working and coming back home at night. And I was always waiting for her. She was coming home from work and sitting down and my dad had cooked everything. So I feel like these works are questioning how we deal with changes in society and they are also about all that is in my head.
Without knowing the personal aspect, the paintings are beautiful and funny. To me they seem so much about color and abstraction, shape, variety. Seeing them all together is awesome. It is amazing how far you can take a simple idea.
Exactly. I feel the central idea is about putting all these pieces together. But they are experiments and an exploration of styles as well. It is an ongoing series and I am still working on it. I jumped on to the collages to refresh the series a little bit and also make some collages that work in a different way. The collages and the portrait paintings are linked. The collages are more open though.
Are the collages more open because of the size? The material?
Yeah, both, you are right. Collage is so freeing, you know? You get interesting textures. It is so fun. Collage is really fun. At first I was really sticking close to the same idea from the portraits—really close—these woman/man creations. And then it began to get a little crazy. Then I started to include this nature—natural element. And then I came back to the repetition of eyes, not sure why that is? I always do it.
The work you were doing when we were at the residency it seemed more—well it was more overtly sexual.
This work feels really sincere, like you are enjoying yourself and having fun. It feels different from the work you were making at our residency.
Yeah, I was at the end of that series during our residency. It is hard because people know you for a particular series of work and I don’t want to let people down and it is hard to make a change. I feel disturbed by the changes sometimes and I’m holding on tight to something that isn’t working anymore. And I just had to let go of that series of work. I still love my past work very much but I just felt constricted in that language and style. I had to reopen other doors and had to just work differently. I began to relate things together through the meaning of them, and not the way they look.
Every artist goes through that time when they are making something and then they aren’t loving it anymore and need to change it. How do you handle that time? Are you the kind of artist that tries lots of things until you find the next thing that is going to stick or is it easy to find your next path?
No. I’m not that person that finds it easily. I try a bunch of things and I find the thing that feels natural and I think I could see how I could go with it. That is when I see the potential and that is good.
The good thing about how I am working right now is that I decided to keep things open. All the works I have been doing have been through that questioning phase. I have a lot of works. I’m going to recycle all that stuff and reprocess it and combine it together in different ways. I have different cycles of work that don’t at first seem necessarily related together, even if I know how they relate. Now I feel like I’m creating the missing links.
So what is it about the human form that you are drawn to? I remember your older works appeared to be more abstract, but there were hidden body parts and sexual components. Has that always been true of your work?
Yes. I’m interested in growth—in geology and people. I had a big realization that all my things were about identity and finding it. Finding what I am about and what constitutes me, what is inside of me. In the past, when I was drawing all these many eyes, it was more internal landscapes. And it was like a map of body parts, fragments. It reminds me of a prenatal space, of something forming.
Now I feel I’m more in that awkward space where I’m using things from the outside world. What constitutes us from the external point of view? So actually, it sounds cliché but maybe it is about understanding where I come from and multi-cultural parents –my dad is Vietnamese and my mom is French. And like the gender roles and everything are about me defining myself. French and American. I may be having issues with knowing who I am and finding my voice. It is a rocky path through that.
When I think about artists that paint the figure—people who spend a lot of time watching other people—I think that action either brings them closer to people or father away. What do you think?
I see what you mean. And it needs to be explored. Not about the person. The person is material. It is objectifying people. I don’t feel like I’m painting people. Because there is this blank face. It is not about one person. It is the idea of people.
It is so interesting, because I don’t think that is true for a lot of people that paint the figure. I think they are very specific about the people they are painting. I think your viewpoint is very unique.
I’m creating an inventory. It is fun, but it is still an inventory. I feel like when I was talking about nature, and the different issues of women, it is funny because we are nature. Everyone is nature. There is not one person who is going to be identical to another one. It is very diverse, very rich material.
These are all acrylics or they are all mixed materials? Do you always paint with multiple materials?
Yes, whatever is going to work. Maybe because I’m not patient with oil? I draw. My paintings are always like drawing/paintings. So you can’t really draw with oil.
They are gouache and they are acrylic. I like golden open paints, I think it looks a bit like oil. And yeah, with the collages I mix different techniques to make all these textures.
Your collage technique is also unique—your source is yourself. It is like a closed circuit. You create the material, you are forming the shapes, and saving them and using them. You are almost doing it like a painter. What do you think?
I feel like it more like a sculpture in a way, because I am cutting the paper. The funny thing with collage is it gets really messy, really fast. I keep cutting pieces, I try on different things and it doesn’t work so I need to have so many options. Eventually it is going to work out. I am going to find the right color, and the right shape. And the collage technique is really fun, but it is also very messy. And exhausting. But it is good, because it is like cheating when I do collages. When I paint the technique is so important but with collage—it is cheating, it looks better right away.
With the collage portrait series of work I am taking my time but in the future I definitely want to do some sculpture as well. I bought some wigs and I want to use papier mâché to do props, like beard props or wig props and keep going with it. It is a fun series. Yes, it is definitely not about individuals anymore. Yeah, there is something fetishized in my work. The body is fetishized.
It seems even the way you work is fetishized. You get caught into an idea and you run with it. You know, you are all about that idea for however long it holds you. I see the connection in your work. To me, they are cohesive.
Yes if you connect the series. Actually, I know people who are disturbed with the way I work, they are like, “How can you be doing this and the paper work with gouache and then painting very painterly? And then hats? And then this?” They are really confused but I see all the links.
So do you think you would ever make an installation? Could you combine works from other series into an installation?
Ideally, that is my dream—to have a chance to make an installation because I feel like it will make sense in content. And I definitely have ideas of how to do that to bind all the pieces together. Pattern is big in my work.
Yes, pattern is major—I see an obsessiveness. The repetitive gesture of carving and then painting—the mark, repetitive mark—it is everywhere here.
It is hard sometimes to make sense of events in life but patterns are the repetition, keeping things together. I feel in my art it is the same. I always go back. Everything has its own system. We talk about cycles and how I work in series and how the series are coming back and these are all patterns connecting my work together. Visually, patterns create this cohesion. It is a solid element to my work.
The sense that I get seeing everything in here is that you are really ready for a show right now.
Bursting. You know, it happens if it needs to happen. You can’t force it.
For my own curiosity, I would want to see how you or an outside curator would arrange your work.
Yes that would be cool too, someone else’s input. Myself, I’m really excited to putting together this event that is going to happen called A Hot Mess. It is going to be a one-night event around the Bedford Area of Williamsburg Brooklyn. It will take place in a new space called Firework. And I’m putting together a small show with my work and the work of four other artists. We are all women who work with unconscious dark material full of “Unheimlichkeit” and body parts. I’m interested in when something familiar becomes strange and foreign. There is a lot of sexual content to the work as a whole.
So you really like comics and illustration?
Love it. I don’t like 90 percent of comic books, but there is the 10 percent that is amazing. I like Chris Ware, Charles Burns and Olivier Schrauwen . I find them amazing. I also love artists that are inspired by comics. Sue Williams’ early work is especially inspiring. I have been looking at Nicole Eisenman recently and her work is great. I feel a deep connection with her art.
It seems I’ve noticed a gallery trend of a lot of figurative work that is funny and weird and messy. I don’t know how to describe it other than casual. What do you think of that work? Do you see yourself fitting into it?
I know what you are talking about. Like Dana Schutz. Austin Lee.
I’m amused by trends. I went to the Armory Show this year and ok—I didn’t see any video at all. I saw a lot of painting, ceramics and work going back to some kind of loose figuration. In a way, good for me, because I am not sure where I fit in. Do what you have to do because you can’t be following trends. That is tricky because you want to be part of the conversation. You don’t want to be the outsider artist. Sometimes the conversation is lame. So what do you do?
That is what I like about some of the comic book artists. It is a bit more open there.
That is something that I think about a lot. I think living in NYC forces you to think about the trends, that in a way is different elsewhere. When I lived as an artist in other places, I never really thought about the trends. But when you go to galleries all the time and you see what the museums are buying, it is hard to not think about it.
Yes, it is hard. Now you see Sigmar Polke. The new best show of the past 10 years. Curators are constantly trying to redefine what is cult.
Talking about something not related to art, but the same question, have you watched the film 20 Feet from Stardom? It is the same question. It is pretty good. It is the idea of who makes the cut, who doesn’t. Why? And people that are just as able don’t make it. You know, heart crushing but pragmatic marketing issues that are preventing them from making it happen. They are just as good, just as much potential, talent, but it doesn’t happen. The art world is not different. Why some people make it happen is a combination of factors—chance, doing the right things at the right time and selling yourself better. Also having a better ego.
It is funny because I work for an artist who is really commercially successful.
How is it for you to physically make someone else’s work? What is it like for you psychologically? Do you distance yourself from it?
Yes. I don’t think about it. I like to not have to do anything with the decision process. It is kind of hard technically. A lot of free hand painting, very straight lines. It is just training I guess. But no, no problem.
Does making somebody else’s work make you want to make your own work more or less?
It doesn’t change anything. I know for some people it does change something.
I think for a lot of people it does. I think they start making someone else’s work and it gets into their head and they carry it into their own work. They carry someone else’s stuff around inside them.
Maybe it does influence me technically? It definitely does. For instance, I noticed before, I didn’t paint any shadows. I started to put shadows in my work. Sometimes it is good stuff. It is more practice. It is good. I did notice, when I started to work for this artist, is when I left the comic book style of working. I realized that painting that anal kind of way for the artist I work for took the anal part of my work from my studio. I’m more free. I’ve found the anal part of working sometimes compensated for my lack of confidence. Or some kind of comfort zone… Very strange. So it does affect me actually!
Have you done any residencies since the one we did together? Any plans for residencies coming up?
Finding this job was great because I can work four days a week and pay my apartment and studio rent, so the goal is to keep that job as long as I can because it is so convenient. Now I can focus on my work. It is only three days off a week, but it is better than lots of people. I do want to apply eventually to a month long residency. On one hand residencies are great, but sometimes they feel like a bit of a waste of time. You are so focused on something maybe more than you need to be. Maybe it depends on the way you work.
"A hot mess" curated by Julie Curtiss and featuring paintings, sculpture and comic strips by Lauren Albert, Jen Hitchings, Iris Jaffe, Elizabeth Ferry and Julie Curtiss. It will be the first show at Firework Gallery in Mid-June, a pop up space directed by Bill Jacobs and Lisa Ludwig, located at 146 Berry Street in Brooklyn. K