One of ultra-contemporary art’s hottest names on fame ahead of Hong Kong show

Becoming wildly successful in the art market may not sound like a bad thing. But too many artists have been burnt by the investment hype over so-called ultra-contemporary art, resulting in growing awareness of the downsides of excessive commercial interest while an artist is still developing.

Julie Curtiss, a half-Vietnamese, half-French artist visiting Hong Kong for her first solo exhibition in Asia, knows of such pressure.

It was around 2019, when Curtiss was 37, that she was dubbed a “market darling”.

Her “breakout” moment happened at a Phillips auction in New York that year, when her faintly disturbing painting of the back of a woman’s head, Princess (2016), sold for US$106,250, over 1,700 per cent higher than the presale estimate.

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Tropical Dawn (2023) by Julie Curtiss. Photo: White Cube

Since then, her so-called neo-surrealist paintings have continued to soar in value, with another, Three Widows (2016), selling for US$466,200 in 2021.

Adjusting to such a change has of course been far more preferable than a downward spiral, she says. Still, the way the market has reacted has been disconcerting, and the US-based artist has been worried that support for her art may not be sustainable.

“I think it’s a big fear for artists. Nowadays trends go fast, the market goes fast and the culture goes fast. The younger generation might not feel the same way, but I’m an old millennial that has started to slow down,” Curtiss says at White Cube in Hong Kong, where her solo exhibition will be held.

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“In the end, these are markets and business decisions. You hope that it’s not going to be a souffle that’s going to pop very quickly and collapse. Because we’ve seen that again and again.”

The former studio assistant of Jeff Koons and Kaws says she is also aware that commercial success is not everything.

“There are so many artists in New York, and the concentration of talented artists there is insane. But not everybody gets a chance to achieve commercial success. It is just a particular kind of success,” she says.

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Side Glance, by Julie Curtiss. Photo: Erika Na

This understanding helps her prevent stardom from taking full hold. What matters to her most is that she keeps feeling “joy on an elemental level” when creating art and expressing herself.

That means at times she creates something just for the fun of it, fully aware that it might not sell. Her first short film, which she made in Tokyo and is part of the “Bitter Apples” exhibition in Hong Kong, is an example.

“When I went to Tokyo I realised what was important to me was that I make a video there, which is something I’ve never done before,” she says. “It’s important for me that I just continue taking those steps and chances. I’m lucky to work with galleries that support and make that possible.”

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Curtiss hopes that young artists going through a similar transition as she is stay flexible and not be scared of trying something new.

“That’s the word of advice I give to myself all the time – reminding myself of what really matters. If I take the joy and the fun and the discovery out of the equation then what’s the point? So I would say that’s the most important thing – that I just continue to do my own thing.”

New works shown in “Bitter Apple” show how she is determined to experiment with different media and subjects as she reflects on changes in her life.

The tropical theme and colour scheme comes from her recent move to Florida, which is “a completely opposite experience from living in Brooklyn for more than 30 years”, she says.

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In South of Eden, she depicts Adam and Eve as a couple living in modern Florida, naked with strong tan lines, looking out of the round window of their retro, kitsch bathroom into the dark Garden of Eden.

“Nothing was planned out,” she says of the spontaneous way she approached the work. “Originally it was supposed to be just a naked couple and a mirror. But as I went through the process, the mirror changed into the window to the garden and I added the tan line as well.”

Side Glance, a painting of a woman in a traditional Chinese qipao sitting next to a green duck, was created with the exhibition in Hong Kong particularly in mind, Curtiss says.

“The piece reflects my half-Vietnamese identity as well, as the qipao has resemblance to a Vietnamese ao dai. In that sense, the woman can be seen as myself.”

“Julie Curtiss: Bitter Apple”, White Cube Hong Kong, G/F 50 Connaught Road Central, Tue-Sat, 11am-7pm. Until Nov 11.

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