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Exhibition Review

Danele Evans

Julie Curtiss Monads and Dyads

12/07/2021

One of the most exciting collections of recent work I have seen, Julie Curtiss’ Monads and Dyads brings together her exploration of contemporary culture and concerns in a display of confrontational paintings and sculptures at the White Cube Gallery, Masons Yard. To those who missed out, the paintings, carefully constructed figurative scenes with a focus on the small details of contemporary life, are in keeping with the artist’s typical cone shaped and illustrative flatness of form, bringing together an exploration of various systems within the modern world.

Tondo 2020. Acrylic, vinyl and oil paint on canvas. Sourced from White Cube
Vesica, 2021. Acrylic, vinyl and oil paint on canvas. Sourced from White Cube.

At first, you enter into a room of intensely coloured, decorative paintings, but upon closer look a narrative begins to emerge through an abundance of juxtapositions. The static versus the dynamic, the simplicity of shape versus the complexity of detail, and the monad versus the dyad. Where this more recent body of work appears amplified by the new perspective of the pandemic, a key difference from her early practice seems to be Curtiss’ attention to mathematical imagery. The symmetry, most evident in ‘Lobby’ and the tondo shaped ‘Vesica’ (reminiscent of a venn diagram and inspired by the number one) present balanced compositions with each half almost exactly mirroring the other, proof of the order and control that grips this show. 

Le Futur, 2021. Acrylic, vinyl and oil paint on canvas. Sourced from White Cube.

Similarly circular in shape, ‘Le Futur’, reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’, is undoubtably star of the show. Hanging alone on the back wall of the gallery space, it magnetises attention with its striking shape, multiple juxtapositions, and undeniably stylised setting. Simply named, it seems to mimic Curtiss’ lens, offering a direct snapshot of the way in which she sees, a view of femininity in the modern world. As with the inclusion of binoculars and goggles elsewhere, she pays attention to the increasingly narrow vision of society, the way in which we have become blinded by modernity, and the power of technology to distort our perception of reality – a concept I am fascinated with myself. 

With clear surrealist influence, the figures, faceless and static, appear cartoon-like, dream-like, unreal, and yet highly realistic. As if characters in Curtiss’ fantasy world, they somehow do not appear distant from our own personal realities. Cigarette in hand, mobile phone poised for a photograph, she signals the modern world. Such details are not typically seen throughout the traditional canon of art history, and she harmonises modern culture and traditional artistic influence in an exciting fusion of perspective.

Detail of ‘Kitchen Counter’, 2020 – my own photograph.

Surprisingly subtle and expertly executed, it takes an attentive eye to notice Curtiss’ incredible attention to light, an illusionistic manipulation of her audience’s perception. Her carefully considered compositions, geometrically fragmented to offer an ambiguous collection of details, are unsettling, and on first glance a high-definition photograph, it is difficult not to be amazed by the outstanding finish of the architectural structures that feature throughout.

Her paintings inspired by the meat industry make clear the contrast between the extremely sleek shapes and complexity of detail of her hair-like brushwork. Curtiss’ typical waved style suits this particularly in its ability to add a glossy, reflective appearance, emphasising the sterile conditions depicted.

Marilyn Sushi, 2021, plastic, self hardening clay, acrylic paint and ceramic plate. Sourced from White Cube.

Bringing to life the subjects of the surrounding paintings, her sculptures inject a sense of wit and playfulness into the show. Displayed on plinths across the lower ground floor, the white tiles present various food adaptations, a straw hat (a frequent feature in her paintings) and bobbed helmet, bringing what before remained a fantasy trapped within the frame of the canvas, into real space. It is hard to ignore the influence of pop here and I am reminded of Chloe Wise’s food sculptures from her recent show (which I viewed online), ‘Thank You For The Nice Fire’, in which tiled plinths also displayed three dimensional depictions of her painted food subjects. Being able to walk around and exist among them on the gallery floor, the sculptures further imposed into my experience and combined with the silence of the subjects, Curtiss succeeds in constructing an unsettling feeling of being watched; making clear her intention to explore the idea of seeing in terms of surveillance.

Backscratch, 2020. Airbrushed acrylic and gouache on paper. Sourced from White Cube.

Even more meaningful for me was that despite the artist being almost double my age, I was able to notice my own artistic interests in her work; the importance of shadow, flatness of form, and anonymity of the figure are all key elements in my own compositions, and it is this relatability that I think drew me further into her world. Not forgetting the black and white paintings on paper in the final room, the monochromatic works make the impact of colour in the rest of the show all the more obvious. In her removal of the instantly grabbing colours of her large-scale paintings, she cleverly draws attention to the composition and subject alone, placing even more emphasis on the multiple juxtapositions, unusual perspectives, and attention to detail throughout that leave you looking at the world differently.

Despite my own personal preference in favour of expression, visible mark-making and evidence of the artist’s touch, the technicality, mathematical motifs, and symmetry throughout this highly stylised collection of work is a testament to Curtiss’ exceptional precision and extraordinary technical skill, which cannot be denied celebration.  A reminder of the necessity of experiencing visual culture in real time and real space, I am certain that while the digitisation of the art world has its benefits, the online presentation of Curtiss’ work alone would not have had the same impact. Direct, confrontational, and introspective, I was left by this 45-minute afternoon visit with a feeling of uncertainty, delight, and intrigue. 

To view the full show online, visit https://whitecube.com/.

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