Julie Curtiss: Somnambules
On ViewAnton Kern
Julie Curtiss: Somnambules
September 8–October 22, 2022
For her third show at Anton Kern, and first in the prime lower floors of its East 55th Street headquarters, Julie Curtiss has produced a great deal of work, and plumbed her pseudo-surrealist tendencies while following themes of sleeplessness or the persistence of invented memory, evocations of the internal and the gently malevolent. She has also expanded her sculptural practice and conceived of a fine suite of polychrome drawings. This ambitious and exemplary display forms a compelling dialogue with both the self and the body at large, the latter still suffering the aftershocks and privations of the international pandemic.
There are twenty-four works from 2022 on two floors, with nine in oil and vinyl on canvas including two triptychs; twelve on paper employing combinations of gouache, watercolor, and acrylic; two sculptures; and one installation. The work in the entry sets the tone: Waiting room features Curtiss’s trademark mops of glistening female hair, creepy hands and fingernails, variety of painted textures, strident and often complementary coloration, and calculated absence of faces. Three women sit in a row on nondescript black tube metal chairs. All are in strict profile facing left, with the first and third woman occluded by a lowlight, potted plant. There are shadows of sash windows on the rear wall and an analog clock that reads 10:10. The nearest woman sits bolt upright, her hands, each of a different tone, lying on the armrests. The woman in the rear has her legs crossed and her featureless head inclined as if she is reading. All seems copacetic. But it is the middle woman who gives the picture its universal power and element of dread. She leans forward, blue cuffs and collar sticking out from her black suit jacket, feet poking out from her slacks, leather pumps thrust forward. Her head lies just below the clock face and rests in her left hand, her features obscured by her ribbons of brown shoulder length hair. The weight of her anxiety lists the picture to the left. There is marvelous pulsing brushwork in a crimson shag carpet and the leaves of the plant, which appear robust and green at top and progressively unhealthy with brown tones as they proceed down the trunks. The alienation, absurdity, and unnaturalness of waiting rooms as featured to hilarious and banal effect in TV comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm gives way, here, to a feeling of oppression and medical anxiety, the international condition of humanity under viral siege.
In the rear of the first floor is one of Curtiss’s largest pictures, Times Square, comprised of two joined canvases forming a 60 × 96 image. Here, we have left the communal but intimate environs of the physician’s office and spilled into the street, with a scene of six shadowy pedestrians with umbrellas or hooded raincoats and moving in two opposing streams across the lower foreground of the picture. They resemble Hellenes on a classical frieze, but in inclement weather. They are backed by a vast and colorful image of a blond odalisque posed on a beach in an advertisement, the illegible identifying text cut off below. She wears hoop earrings, a pink bikini top, and a creamsicle colored sarong. Curtissian pointed fingernails match her swimsuit. Her head is thrown back, soaking in the sun, but we only see the lower part of her left cheek. In a deft touch, the glow from a streetlamp above melds with the reflection of an unpictured sun on the ocean in the advertisement behind. The entire background is covered with a half-inch square black grid, through which you read the advertisement, conveying its status as a glowing billboard. None of the foreground walkers pay any heed to its allure of unattainable luxe, calme et volupté, its promise of sun-splashed leisure counteracted by the dull thud of reality, of economic uncertainty, of political acrimony, of international anxiety, of war, of disjointedness. In the center, two raincoated New Yorkers with heads covered appear to approach each other, faceless face to faceless face, but will pass without acknowledgment. In this picture, Curtiss flips the ironically sunny outlook of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) on its head by dovetailing it with George Tooker’s post-war New York disquietude (absent Tooker’s empathetic faces). Combine that with the frieze-like form of Seurat’s Parade de cirque (1887-88) at the Met, with its similar promise of entertainment in the background, in the French painter’s own pointillist anticipation of the fragmentation of billboard pixels.
The dreamlike/nightmarish quality of existence is made plain in a picture adjacent to Times Square titled Nuit blanche. The same female somnambule or sleepwalker, is shown three times, tossing and turning and fruitlessly seeking for a comfortable position. The background looks like sundown on Mars, and the body language of this nude woman conveys desperation and exhaustion, with shadows that amplify her agony. Nearby, Curtiss’s sexually laced humor is well in evidence with Freudian Slip, wherein a wizened and gender-neutral hand pokes a hooked cane between the legs of a naked woman lying with her legs bent on a wood grained table. In the background, a corn plant leans in to witness what can be read as kinky or violative. In the upstairs gallery, one of the beautifully rendered drawings shows a white ibis in right profile with the two tips of its long beak around a woman’s nipple. The title is Pinch, and the bird’s eye, seen head-on, seems to register a kind of panic. In The magician, another creepy, non-gendered hand with bulging dorsal metacarpal veins and hooked two-tone fingernails emerges from a red curtain at right and holds a disembodied human hand out to a presumed audience. The drawings are all captivating, and the use of vivid color represents a shift from Curtiss’s more recent monochrome works on paper.
A sculptural installation captures the whole of Curtiss’s aesthetic, though it is bereft of a body. In Son/Moon, the artist has laid a sun-bleached suit with collared shirt and necktie on a low toddler’s bed. There are untied leather shoes on the far side of the bed, and a night table featuring a plastic glowing globular lamp set into the surface. Within it a moth appears to be ceaselessly circling. The suit was purchased from a rack outside a haberdashery—she wanted one that had been discolored by solar rays. The child appears to have vanished into the mattress, or the ether. Curtiss hand-stained the bed frame and dyed the sheets a tawny light tan. Such painstaking transformations of reality form a kind of bent recall that is elicited in her work, wherein elements look familiar but off, threatening but serene, lovely but bearing the potential for malevolence (like the high-heeled shoes with the eyes of foxes in the drawing titled Wicked). Curtiss has noted that much of the inspiration for this show arose from her own persistent insomnia and dealing with the stresses of the past few years. The work envelopes us in her dilemma, eliciting both sympathy and empathy, through suggestive narratives that strike a communal chord and imagery that seems common and recognizable, refracted and made compellingly strange through subtle artistic manipulation.