Deborah Curtiss, a founder of Greene Street Artists Cooperative, continues her lifelong mission to battle sexism in the art world and beyond with a new exhibition at Mt. Airy’s Earth-Bread + Brewery.
The show includes several pieces of Curtiss’ work, including works from her “Threnody” collection – a word meaning “song of sorrow.”
Beauty from suffering
At the Sunday opening of her show, Curtiss told NewsWorks that the Threnody pieces represent a traumatic part of her life, when she suddenly found herself without a home.
“What to do with all that anger?” Curtiss said. “I had to re-cobble my life together and all I had were these scraps of canvas.”
The asymmetrical, three-panel works follow Curtiss’s penchant for upending the rectangular “window” view that dominates most paintings.
The bi-chromatic works feature a trio of four-cornered canvasses in a vertical row, including rectangular and trapezoidal shapes. Curtiss dipped a piece of linen in a bucket of paint, and arranged its sodden folds on the top panel for a 3D effect that is both sculptural and spontaneous. She allowed the paint to drip down across the trapezoidal middle panel, carefully masked and later darkened with graphite, to the rectangular panel at the bottom.
When asked how long these works take to create, Curtiss answered “a lifetime,” because of the emotions that inform them.
Condescension and inspiration
Another series at the Mt. Airy venue represents the faces of women who inspired Curtiss projected onto a variety of chairs.
Curtiss’ desire to celebrate these women – who include artists of various forms, like legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, novelist Ellen Glasgow, and writer, philosopher and activist Simone de Beauvoir – stems from personal experiences she described as “incredibly invalidating.”
Then a wife to a faculty member of Swarthmore College (the reason Curtiss, who is a Manhattan native, first came to Philadelphia), Curtiss said she suffered pervasive “condescension” as an intellectually rigorous female artist.
“This is myself that I’m choosing to share,” she said of how denigrating a person’s work can be the same as denigrating the artist herself.
The first piece in the chairs series is a portrait of Graham, whose features lie within the shapes of a chair by Thos. Moser.
Curtiss said she was nineteen when she first saw Graham dance in 1956. She was transfixed because the performer “let me know in no uncertain terms that a woman can be strong and creative.”
The chairs portrait series grew out of a single assignment to combine a portrait with a “designed object,” Curtiss explained, but she felt compelled to continue the theme, and later found greater meaning in pairing the two seemingly incongruous images.
The chairs in the pieces have a historical or artistic connection to the lives of the women represented, alluding to their time period or chairs they themselves painted, or ones existed in their real-life studios.
They’re also symbolic of something else: “all of these women thrived in their lives, despite being sat upon,” Curtiss said.
Surviving the war
The acrylic and graphite works are full of structural details that further inform their subjects.
Curtiss pointed to the way de Beauvoir’s main canvas lies subtly askew on a textured background panel. That’s because she was perceived as “off, relative to life.”
But a portrait of German artist Käthe Kollwitz lies straight on a background panel that is slightly off-kilter. This represents Kollwitz’s survival of two world wars.
Despite her own struggles, Curtiss said that now she’s content not to get too personally “exercised” about the rampant gender inequalities “ingrained” in the contemporary world. To her, the important thing is “continu[ing] to create with integrity.”
Artist Deborah Curtiss’ exhibition on the second floor of Earth-Bread + Brewery will be up through the end of June.