She enjoys associating humour with darkness, the uncanny and the mundane, grotesque shapes to vivid colours. The Brooklyn-based French artist Julie Curtiss works with ideas of narration from her imagination to create psychological artworks that raise questions without an answer. Abnormal situations that deal with different aspects of the female identity as well as the opposite notions of nature and culture. The Dinner Party, published by Spheres Publications, is her brand new book which, in collaboration with other authors, investigates the mysterious world behind her art pieces and how to transform the quotidian into the unexpected.
Julie, by just looking at your work, we see how surrealism and female identity characterize the main body of your oeuvre. Indeed, “If the Chicago imagists and the surrealists had a baby, I think it would look a little like my work”, you once said. How did you start a career in art? And how has your evolution as an artist been so as to get to these unique visual narratives that deeply characterize your work?
For me, it didn’t seem that I started a career until later. After graduating from Beaux-arts School in Paris, I still had a hard time with the notion of being an artist. I didn’t have any models of artists in my family or in my close acquaintances when I grew up. But I did slowly build a stronger work ethic, getting immersed in the studio for longer hours.
I’ve always been attracted to the powerful way images convey complex thoughts, even opposed ideas, seamlessly. My favourite class at school was Art Psychoanalysis, based on Jungian principles. Around the same time I studied Jung, I started paying even closer attention to my dreams, my inner world, and tried to see how I could incorporate that material and that language into my art.
Hair is something we can’t overlook when talking about your art. It is present in almost every one of your paintings, gouaches or sculptures. From rolls to cakes or even bodies. Where does the fascination behind all this exploration on hair come from? And how meaningful is it to you personally?
Hair has been in my practice ever since the beginning. But it hasn’t always been at the centre. When I use it, I am not convinced my work is about hair, it’s about all the things attached to it: intimacy, identity, culture, the concept of beauty, animality, primordiality. Hair is called an ‘accessory organ’. How weird is that! It’s alive and dead at once. I think a lot of my art is about the inside and outside, and hair grows in that direction. Covering objects with hair is a way for me to remind people that what we perceive from the outer world is suggestive, is tainted by our inner world.
You were born in France to a Vietnamese father and French mother, and after your graduation from l’Ecole des Beaux-arts of Paris in 2006, you lived in Tokyo. However, you are now based in Brooklyn. How much have the different culture scenes shaped your work? And what aspects did you embrace to create your own artistic vocabulary?
I feel mostly French because I grew up there, but I know my Vietnamese side is anchored deep inside. This facet of my identity enriched my upbringing but is also unfamiliar, other. I think this feeling of otherness is very important in my work, it translates through the uncanny, the play between attraction and repulsion. Also, my dad was the family cook, he was amazing at it; food is central to Vietnamese culture. Scarcity plays an important role as to why my dad – and many of his generation – have an obsession with food. I believe so much of my food paintings are about this complex and sometimes fraught relationship with food. Vietnamese equate food with love. I love my dad’s cooking so much and miss it dearly in my life as an adult. However, I remember feeling smothered by it as a teenager, and there were phases when I avoided it or refused it.
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Julie, you also deal with nails and different aspects of female identity. How much is your work commenting on current social or political issues according to you?
I am not sure. To be honest, coming to the United States as a French person, I became fascinated with the extravagance of the nail culture, the high heels, the ‘camp culture’. We don’t have as much of it in France. Everything is about being classy, or natural, tasteful. I guess I was interested in the way American women would stage themselves, create versions of themselves that don’t seem quite personal – more like personas and characters. I find it very interesting.
My paintings are often a bit like stages, with a character or an object standing in front of a background, there is something unnatural about the setting. But the situation allows focus and is made in a way to reveal something. I like that tension, when artificiality distils elements of truth. My works are interpreted as feminist or as commenting on political issues, and it’s true that by depicting elements of the world surrounding me, I can’t escape the context I live in. But I strongly believe that, as an artist, I have more to bring to the world by staying opened and honest about the meanings of my work – no matter how contradictory or distasteful – than by trying to convey social and political messages.
You tend to crop your subjects very intimately, leaving part of the action outside of the frame, as if we were just seeing a fragment of the narrative. You portray the uncanny but in a familiar way, suggesting the abnormal with surrealism. What memorable responses have you had to your work?
As you noticed, the characters I often depict are fragmented and I never represent facial features – but I used to a long time ago. However, all my portraits had a blank stare – alike statues – or eyes filled with black. The most notable reaction I can remember was to an old painting of mine – it came from a long-time friend of my parents. She really liked the self-portrait I made and I gave it to her for her house. A few months later, she begged me to draw irises in the eyes. The painting was giving her the heebie-jeebies!
I was living abroad then and this was an old painting I didn’t care much for, so I just accepted when she said she would do it herself. After almost a decade, I came back to her place. I had forgotten all about the story and ran into it. It was completely comical. The irises she painted were too small for the eyes and slightly askew! But I guess she still preferred this to the blank look, which was the whole point of the painting and which disturbed her so much.
Would you be able to pick a favourite art piece of yours? Maybe one that has a special story or anecdote behind it?
That’s a tough question. Maybe I would pick the painting called Venus that was included in a show about female surrealism at the White Cube gallery in London. This painting was the catalyst for all the changes I made in my practice. I started this piece at the beginning of 2015 and finished it at the end of 2016, which is a long time to work on a painting for me. It started as a bigger painting inspired by a lithograph Pablo Picasso made after a painting by Lucas Cranach. In my initial version, there was a landscape in the background, the body was out of flesh, it was loosely painted, and the Venus was holding an ice cream cone. But I had given up on this painting and I was developing the new body of work that people now know me for. I was about to trash it when I figured I would try something drastic on it.
I was already working with a kind of hair pattern at that time and I decided to cover her body with tresses and coils, which is a quintessential Venus feature; I would simplify the composition to its bare minimum with just a flat background. I trimmed the canvas closely around the figure and re-stretched it on a smaller, narrower stretcher, thus the odd size. And finally, I added a few anachronic clues for the environment: a fluffy carpet, a bamboo branch, etc. I wanted it to feel like an anonymous office space or a waiting room. If you put that painting under X rays, you would definitely have some surprises!
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The mysterious narratives of your paintings have now translated into a brand-new book, The Dinner Party, published by Spheres Publications. Your images were used as a prompt for Darren Bader, Lauren Groff, Austin Lee, Carmen Maria Machado, Nick Mulgrew, and Legion Seven. These authors were invited to join the ‘party’ and react to an existing painting or write a text that you later reinterpreted in the form of a new painting. This results in a multi-course feast that reflects on food, nature, the human body and how to transform the quotidian into the unexpected. Could you tell us a little bit more about how you came up with such a unique way of projecting an art book?
Philippe Karrer, who is basically the face behind Spheres Publications, is an editor/graphic designer and he works with many emerging artists on experimental books. They are true collaborative projects, he’s involved from A to Z, from the concept to the production and distribution. Our common friend Austin Lee put us in touch. We got along right away and were both excited to the prospect of making the book, but we were both too caught up with work for a while to give it a proper start. It took us at least a good year before Philippe came to me with this original idea to collaborate with writers and poets. Since my work is so much about narratives, I thought it was a delightful idea.
Also, a part of me was thinking, ‘great, I won’t have to make too many artworks for it either’ as I was overwhelmed with the production for my solo show. When you don’t work in the publishing world, you don’t suspect the mass of work a simple book needs. What I didn’t realize was that I had absolutely zero connections to the publishing/writer’s network. And that was a tough nut to crack!
I can imagine. Having the right contacts can open so many doors in any industry I believe. How did you ‘crack’ it?
Philippe and I went to work, asking for recommendations, reading books, thinking about our context and what we wanted to convey. We were open to more unconventional types of text; we approached a food critic, a comedian, etc. Also, as a visual artist, most of the time I give my images for free to be published. We had no financing plans and quickly realized we had to give a fee for the writers’ time! Anton Kern gallery fortunately offered to co-sponsor it. Anyways, for months, we wrote to writers and agents. As we got a few positive answers, we started the collaborative process… but the deadline got closer and closer, and the focus became to find the right people and then ask them to pick a pre-existing work and write something for it.
In the end, we managed to work with three amazing fiction writers – Lauren Groff, Carmen Maria Machado and Nick Mulgrew. Each has a distinctive language that connects with the kind of modern surrealism you can find in my visuals and in two artists: Darren Bader, whose work is often conceptual and just exists in the world in the form of a text, and Austin Lee, who’s an adventurer and likes to dab into various mediums. Legion Seven is a friend of Philippe’s – a poet, musician, and performer.

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With many selected exhibitions and solo shows around the world, features in some of the most important magazines, and the launch of The Dinner Party book, what do you have yet to achieve in your artistic career?
I never thought anyone would ask me this question so early! I guess I feel that I just started, and so much remains to be explored. I want to slowly scale up the sculptures. Scale up the paintings as well. If time allows, I want to keep exploring other mediums, maybe through collaborations, like with the book. Sadly, one has limited time and energy! But as soon as the show was up, I was already thinking, ‘what’s coming next?’
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