When women’s naked breasts appear in Julie Curtiss’ curious, terrific paintings at Various Small Fires, they do so rather unexpectedly. They are unnaturally conical — fetishized, certainly, but also strangely weaponized.
Where fingernails appear in the works, they extend like long flames, purple or fuchsia, as if belonging to a comic book superhero or lowbrow pinup. Where hair appears — and it appears everywhere, not just on heads — it organizes itself into rolled and rippled tresses, parting like heavy curtains.
Born in Paris and based in Brooklyn, Curtiss merits honorary membership in the quirky tribe of Chicago Imagists of the late 1960s and beyond. Her paintings are close kin to the crisply stylized visions of Roger Brown and even more so to those of Christina Ramberg, whose work similarly focused on the female body, tightly framed, in shallow spaces, a charged instrument of sexuality.
Consider “The Nest,” one of seven small gouache and acrylic paintings on paper, complementing a larger assembly of works on canvas. Curtiss gives us an overhead view down onto the spread legs of a figure whose every surface is defined by those twisted tresses, in russet. Straight into the cleft tucks an emerald fish, its head entirely enveloped. The picture reads like a Surrealist Rorschach test, an abstracted glimpse of a bizarre, private dream.
Two sculptures made of hats entirely sheathed in synthetic hair have a similar, uncanny presence. Glossy, weirdly ornamental and uncomfortably funny, these disembodied heads do justice to the legacy of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered teacup, and perhaps also give a sly nod to one of the names adopted by the Chicago Imagists: the Hairy Who.
“Altered States,” the show is called, and Curtiss delivers, with panache. She turns even the most ho-hum of domestic subjects — a steaming ham shank on a platter — into a psychologically barbed proposition through the visibility of her fine, repeated brushstrokes, hinting of obsession, and her tweaked palette. Rising from the forked meat are fumes of suspiciously toxic purple.
Curtiss defamiliarizes the familiar, blurs the boundaries between animate and inanimate, between sinister and seductive. In “Mourners,” she pulls back the cloak of one of four grieving women to reveal her naked body beneath (more unexpected breasts). Of course there was skin under the dark, formless garment, but the sight of it is incongruous and mildly shocking. It’s hard to say who is more exposed by the reveal — subject or viewer.
Various Small Fires, 812 N. Highland Ave., L.A. Through June 23; closed Sundays and Mondays. (310) 426-8040, www.vsf.la
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