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Julie Curtiss 朱莉·柯蒂斯

Hair, both beautiful and abject, ornamental and beastly, is a semiotic system that holds a powerful attraction for French-born, Florida-based artist Julie Curtiss. Born and raised in Paris, Curtiss studied at l’École des Beaux-Arts and then at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Dresden before making her way to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Arguably, the Chicago imagists of her alma mater, like Christina Ramberg – to whose work Curtiss’ is often compared – and her years working as a studio assistant to both Jeff Koons and Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS) have informed Curtiss’ aesthetic, with its vibrant colours, cartoonish figuration and smooth, skilfully rendered lines. It’s a highly stylised visual language that helped her work get noticed on Instagram and reach stratospheric heights of success in the art world. But unlike Kaws’ Happy Meal cartoons and figurines, Curtiss’ work is personal, a deep dive into the female psyche and femininity through Jungian archetypes.  

Bitter Apples, Curtiss’ first exhibition at White Cube Hong Kong, brings together works across varied media, including acrylic and oil paintings on canvas, gouache on paper, video and sculpture, drawing from cinema, art history, symbolism and psychology. The artist circles back to themes that have become hallmarks of her work, playing with recurring motifs of femininity and domesticity – faceless portraits that emphasise hair, long, painted fingernails, high heels, cigarettes. “My work is all about domesticated nature and domesticated spaces,” she says, adding in her artist statement: “At the heart of my interest is how nature and culture relate, the balance between our wild side and our domesticated side. And the weirdness of it all.”

Exhibition view of Bitter Apples by Julie Curtiss at White Cube Hong Kong 21 September – 11 November 2023. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee)

Hair, tame and wild – and the women it is attached to – has become a recognisable motif in her oeuvre, in the way it was for Italian surrealist pop art painter Domenico Gnoli. It is both seductive and abject, as well as rooted in the artist’s personal memory. “I remember that single moment when I got interested in hair was when I found my mother’s hair in an old suitcase – it was a long brown braid. I only knew my mother with grey hair. It’s death but it’s also very sensuous when you hold someone’s hair. It’s tactile and it’s part of their body; it’s dead yet it’s alive. It’s a remnant part of her.” Curlicues and rope-like coils of hair are rendered in paint in fetishistic, obsessive detail, flooding her canvases, such as in Nautilus (2023), where an elaborate coiled hairstyle mimics a seashell, and Parrots (2022), with its strands of blond hair framing an ear. 

Elements of the sinister or macabre and the absurd creep into Curtiss’ works, creating tension when paired with the whimsical. Earlier works featured beastly, long-clawed hands reaching across the back of a head or holding a cigarette (Conversation, 2016), which call to mind surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers (1936); the top of a head presented on a plate with salad (Food for Thought, 2019); and a hirsute-looking roast fowl (Smoking Turkey, 2016). Khoi Soup (2023), one of two small sculptures in the exhibition, features the head of a red koi carp bobbing in a bowl of soup noodles, looking like it’s just popped up for air, yet likely dead (so one assumes) and served up as food.  

Exhibition view of Bitter Apples by Julie Curtiss at White Cube Hong Kong 21 September – 11 November 2023. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee)

In her portraits, it’s immediately striking that none of the subjects have eyes. Faces are hidden or undefined, like in a dream, creating feelings of unease. Nobody looks back at you from the canvas, inviting, challenging or accepting your gaze. “Because there is this blank face, it is not about one person. It is the idea of people,” the artist explains. In Side Glance (2023), a faceless woman is posed seated on an orange sofa with a green duck against a background of foliage – a juxtaposition of domestic space and nature. In other paintings like Red Umbrella (2023) and South of Eden (2023), all we can see is the backs of her subjects’ heads: their hair. “I don’t want to have characters in my paintings, but I want them to be templates for the viewer’s projection. All I want is to activate the viewer’s narrative,” she says. 

The artist’s meticulous, hypnotic linework, painted strand by strand, at times creates the optical illusion of vibration or pulsing, giving rise to an unsettling feeling. Shading and colour blocks are painted with the same hirsute texture made of minute lines, giving the impression that everything is covered in a layer of fur or hair. Even a black umbrella in Under My Umbrella (2022) resembles a head of wet, glossy, raven-coloured hair. This technique alludes to the archetype of a woman with an animalistic drive, calling attention to the interrelation between nature and culture, domesticity and wildness, masculine and feminine, and anima and animus – the Jungian theory describing the unconscious masculine in the female psyche, and the feminine in the male psyche, which informs Curtiss’ work.

The exhibition is rife with tongue-in-cheek jokes and visual puns. Themes crop up of gender, sexuality, innocence and experience, some within a biblical framework: a large serpent swallows a couple in coitus in Serpent (2023) – an eaten apple, the source of temptation and downfall, appears on a night stand nearby. Employing cinematic language for the compositions of many of her paintings – drawing inspiration from films by experimental surrealist filmmakers like Maya Deren, David Lynch and the noir of Alfred Hitchcock – tight cropping and close-ups of manicured hands, styled hair and body parts encourage the viewer to imagine what is beyond the frame, allowing the unconscious to fill in the gaps and complete the narrative. 

In Duel in Eden (2022), the tightly framed image shows the naked torsos of a man and woman, presumably Adam and Eve, facing one another in a fleshy stand-off. The exploration of gender, sex and power is continued in the humorous Duel (2022), in which a cartoonish pair of male and female torsos with genitalia exposed similarly stand before one another, a pistol holster arrayed against a lacey, black suspender belt and stockings, male against female in a battle of the sexes. Rude Clam juxtaposes food and libido, further exploring ideas of pleasure and indulgence. In Horse Chestnut (2023), a gouache-on-paper painting, a pair of woman’s hands hold open a spiky horse chestnut between her legs, while Bolet (2023) depicts a phallic-looking mushroom gripped in a sexually suggestive manner by a woman’s hand. 

Exhibition view of Bitter Apples by Julie Curtiss at White Cube Hong Kong 21 September – 11 November 2023. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee)

In the gallery’s upstairs exhibition space, we find a series of works in which nature motifs dominate, arranged in wider angled compositions. Lush, verdant palm trees and tropical birds are juxtaposed with artificial, kitsch domestic spaces. Two large acrylic on oil paintings, Tropical Dawn and Tree of Life (both 2023), feature staged tropical scenes populated with a menagerie of animals like flamingos, crocodiles, rabbits and ibises, invading living rooms. This body of work demonstrates a transition for the artist, reflecting her move to Florida – a paradise both artificial and natural – but also exhibiting more painterly influences, drawing on the history of figurative paintings like those of Henri Rousseau or Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510), an Edenic paradise of humans and animals.

Like the surrealists before her, Curtiss enjoys playing with binaries, the juxtaposition of humour and darkness, the uncanny and the mundane, the grotesque painted in vivid colours, and exploring the fine line between abject and the attractive, thanatos and eros. Bitter Apples brings this all together in a delightful, subversive, colour-saturated joyride. Ultimately, Curtiss says, her work is a reflection on chaos and order, “a consideration of systems and things that are misplaced. It’s about the throwing of a wrench into a perfect system.” 

Featured image: Tropical dawn by Julie Curtiss, Acrylic and oil on canvas, 139.7 x 203.2 cm
2023. © the artist. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee)





柯蒂斯的作品中滲透著險惡、恐怖和荒誕的元素,與異想天開的作品結合營造張力。早期的作品描繪想伸過後腦或拿著香煙野蠻又細長的手(《Conversation》,2016年),讓人想起超現實主義藝術家梅雷特.奧本海姆的《木指毛皮手套》(1936年)。其他作品還有沙律盤上露出的半個頭頂(《Food for Thought》,2019年),以及毛聳聳的燒禽(《Smoking Turkey》,2016年)。《Khoi Soup》(2023年)是展覽兩件小雕塑的其中之一,紅色的錦鯉頭在湯的表面晃動,它看起來像是想彈出來呼吸,但更有可能的是已經死了然後被端上桌作為食物。

最令人意外的是在她肖像畫中,所有拍攝對象都沒有眼睛。臉要麼就直接隱藏,要麼就很模糊,如夢境一樣令人不安,畫布上沒有任何人會回看、邀請、挑戰或接受你的目光。藝術家解釋:「因為這張茫然的臉不是想描繪某個人,而是描繪人類這個概念。」在《In Side Glance》(2023年)中,一個無面女子在樹葉前的橙色沙發上坐著,旁邊有一隻綠色的鴨子,家庭空間與自然並置。在《Red Umbrella》(2023年)和《South of Eden》(2023年)等其他畫作中,我們都只能看到畫中人背面的頭髮。她說:「我不想畫中有任何人物,但我希望它們可以成為觀眾的投射對象,進入觀眾的故事。」

一絲不苟、催眠的線條由藝術家一根一根繪製,有時會產生振動或脈動的視覺錯覺,產生一種不安感。陰影和色塊都塗上由細線組成相同的毛茸紋理,讓人感覺所有事物都被毛皮或頭髮覆蓋,就連《Under My Umbrella》(2022年)的黑色雨傘也像一頭濕漉漉、有光澤的黑髮一樣。這種技巧間接提到了具有獸性衝動的女性原型,引起人們關注自然與文化、家庭與獸性、男性與女性、阿尼瑪與阿尼姆斯之間的相互關係。阿尼瑪與阿尼姆斯是榮格理論中女性無意中滲透的男性特質,以及男性的女性氣質,亦是柯蒂斯的作品中經常出現的元素。


在《Duel in Eden》(2022年)中,近鏡的圖像展示了可能是亞當和夏娃的裸體,男女的身體正面站著。對性別、性和權力的探索在幽默的《Duel》(2022年)亦有體現,卡通化的男女身體同樣站在彼此面前露出生殖器官,手槍皮套與蕾絲黑色吊襪帶和長襪對立,進行一場男女之間的性別之戰。《Rude Clam》將食物和性慾並排,深入探索歡愉和放縱的概念。在廣告彩紙本作品《Horse Chestnut》(2023年)中,女性用雙手在雙腿之間打開一顆帶刺的馬栗,而《Bolet》(2023年)則描繪女性用手以充滿性暗示的方式抓住一顆類似陽具的蘑菇。

畫廊上層的展覽空間中有一系列以大自然為題的作品,這些作品以較寬闊的角度構圖排列。鬱鬱蔥蔥的棕櫚樹和熱帶鳥類與人造且庸俗的家庭空間並列。兩幅大型塑膠彩油畫《Tropical Dawn》和《Tree of Life》(同為2023年)都描繪了熱帶場景,客廳被紅鶴、鱷魚、兔子和朱鷺等動物入侵。這些作品反映藝術家搬到佛羅里達州這個人工兼自然天堂的轉變,亦展現其他藝術家對她的影響,借鑒了亨利.盧梭等人的具象繪畫史和波希的人類與動物伊甸園天堂《人間樂園》(1490-1510年)。


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