Unsettling Energies with Julie Curtiss

Published in Issue 19
Interview by Claire Milbrath
Images courtesy of the artist and Anton Kern Gallery


I asked Julie Curtiss for an explanation of the four recurring symbols that make a painting a Julie Curtiss painting: hair, cigarettes, fingernails, heels. To say her work reminds me of Rorschach inkblot tests seems a bit odd—they look nothing alike. But her work feels nostalgic for a 1960s-esque understanding of psychology. Her paintings are full of nerves, like a caricature of a sexually repressed, death-obsessed housewife. For a traditional, aesthetics-driven painter, Curtiss’ work is concept-heavy, and lifting the rug on her paintings has been a mind-bending experience—a Green Crack-fuelled lesson in Jungian archetypes and Freudian fear of dolls.

For anyone unaware of Jungian psychology, like myself, a brief explanation follows: Carl Jung wrote that inside every man is an unconscious femininity called “Anima,” and vice versa for women and masculinity (“Animus”). According to Jung, these gender non-conforming energies manifest themselves by appearing in dreams. Anima can be understood as the black part of the Yin Yang—dark, sexual, mysterious. For Curtiss, Anima/Animus manifest themselves through thick hair, pointy breasts, and man hands. Her paintings function as dreams: unclear yet precise, and unsettling. I can’t stop wondering how the back of someone’s head can be so terrifying.


To what extent is your work psychological?

My work is completely psychological. Man and His Symbols and Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung were major milestones to me. I have done therapy for a very long time.

I was going to say, the scenes in your paintings feel a lot like memories or dreams—detailed but obscured. Can you talk a bit about why you hide faces?

I am interested in the way our unconscious minds create fully-formed artworks: dreams. I like how dreams can be extremely vague and precise at once, and I aim to recreate this balance. Sometimes I think of a situation for a painting—there is a background, maybe a character, some objects. I usually go on the internet to find the most archetypal image of that object online. I want to create images that invite the viewer to make up stories in their minds. The reason why I obscure faces is to purposely keep the character’s identity open. If I become specific, it may seem like I made a portrait. In dreams, you often encounter persons who aren’t physically definite, while it seems that you have known them all your life. I want to emulate Freud’s Das Unheimlich [Freud’s essay about the strangeness of dolls and waxworks—the inception of the concept of the uncanny].

That’s interesting, because in the past you’ve stated that you prefer image-searching within your brain, rather than sourcing stock images online. Do you think there is some benefit to resisting the web in this way?

I can’t remember what I exactly said on the topic. But actually I do use the internet for references! What does a lobster really look like? Even though I stylize a lot, I need to make sure that my images are instantly recognizable. In that regard, the web is a treasure on hand. I think it’s the best and the worst manifestation of the collective unconscious we’ve had in history. It’s hard to resist—even my dad who is 80 years old is completely addicted. For the most part I go on the internet with a purpose: I need information, an image, or to buy something. I don’t wander on there that much; that’s time consuming. I just wonder: what resisting tool do we have?

Elon Musk says humans are already cyborgs, with computer mods by way of the smart phone in the palm of our hand. There’s been talk of removing the physical iPhone from the picture, and putting the data right inside our heads. Would you opt for the upgrade?

Yes! I listened to his interview with Joe Rogan. “You think AI is the future? It’s already here!” It blew my mind. I think it would take me a long time to get the upgrade, but I would eventually get there. I am always freaked out about any body/mind alterations. But honestly, when everybody around you becomes some sort of superhuman, will you really resist the temptation? We are social creatures, and being left behind doesn’t feel so good.

Do you have a dark sense of humour?

I think so. I have always been drawn to the sinister. It’s a bit like the Boggart-Banishing Spell in Harry Potter, “Riddikulus!” Some things in life trouble me or repulse me, and transforming them by injecting some humour into a situation is a form of coping. And the other way around too—I like taking things that are grotesque and rendering them somewhat beautiful or attractive. I like the in-between, or the marriage of opposites you find in dark humour.

What draws you to spooky subject matter? As I’m growing up I’ve found there’s something kind of scary about being a woman, in a psychological sense.

Absolutely. I am attracted to the many representations of the negative Anima in art: the witch, Medusa, the devouring mother…maybe because I have to come to terms with it myself. There is something interesting in embracing and overcoming the negative sides of being a woman. In the myth, Perseus uses Gorgon Medusa’s* severed head to shield himself, and turn her evil powers for good. I find this version of the dangerous female figure fascinating, powerful, and rich.

*Gorgon Medusa was once a vain woman with beautiful long locks. After she was raped by Poseidon, Athena reprimanded Medusa by changing her silky hair to venomous snakes, and cursing her with the ability to turn others into stone, so that she may surprise any future foes with terror. King Polydectes sent Perseus away to kill Medusa, in the hopes he would not survive the mission. But Perseus, using a mirror to avoid looking directly at Medusa, was able to cut off her sleeping head. Perseus then used the decapitated head of the Gorgon to kill his enemies and transform Atlas into the stone that held up the celestial heavens. The Gorgon’s head of snakes, with her tongue sticking out, became a symbol of protection and healing, and was hung on entryways, shields, and tombstones.


What are you afraid of?

I am interested in nuances, in complexity, in the in-between, in complementarity. I am afraid of the lack of it—I am afraid of extreme polarization, of a lack of conversation, of a black-and-white vision of the world.

Your work is included in a lot of discussion about feminism and surrealism. Do you tire of this conversation, or is it something you welcome/challenge with your subject matter?

I am wary of my work being utilized—of meaning being superimposed for political purpose. I prefer keeping the signification of my work opened. I think it’s essential for good art to leave room for interpretation. It is interesting to me that so much of my practice is personal and intimate. However, as soon as the work leaves the studio, it resonates at a larger scale, which is hard to control. I am glad that my work participates in a conversation about woman and society, and I am a voice among many voices. However, there are many currents under the label feminism, that I don’t necessarily fully embrace. I don’t want to be more visible because I am a  woman, or because I am half Vietnamese. Like any artist, I want to be judged on the quality of my work.

Your recent work seems to feature more food, scenes of twisted housewifery. What was your household like growing up? Was dinner on the table at 7?

LOL, actually, yes. Dinner was on the table everyday at 8pm on the dot. But my household was somewhat unconventional. My mother was the one bringing the bacon home, while my dad reigned over the kitchen. My dad is Vietnamese and I grew up completely spoiled, fed on a mix of French and Vietnamese cuisine. Maybe that’s why the housewife thing is very exotic to me! Now that I do most of the cooking at home, my parenting model is all messed up. The housewife in me is all conflicted, between pride and rebellion.