Philip C. Curtis: Surrealist of the Heart



 Surrealism, abstraction and non-objectivity evolved early in the 20th Century as escapes from physical and spiritual suffering and dislocation caused by war, technology, materialism and loss of faith in God and Man. Artists and humanity in general recoiled from the horror and emptiness of reality and the pervasive feeling that life was meaningless, that there might not be a way to restore sanity and justice in the world.


 Philip C. Curtis, while essentially a surrealist, is too much a painter with an individual point of view to fit comfortably in the Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte "realistic" wing of that movement. More romantic, very much less cynical, and not nearly as photographic as these two artists, Curtis does, however, clearly share their dreamlike penetration of the surface of reality into that stranger, far less rational zone below consciousness where a different form of truth may be found. With something of the dark mood of seminal surrealist Giorgio de Chirico and the irony of Magritte – though much more of a colorist and lush in style than the latter's dry manner – Curtis has nothing at all in common with the savage paranoia of Dali.


 It is difficult to consider any contemporary artist in America, or even the world, being of higher stature than Philip C. Curtis. If we think of the period since World War II, what artist has had more to say, said it better, in more lasting form, whatever their aesthetic language? Curtis rises above the mass of artists through the intrinsic quality and mastery of his work, and the profundity of his statement.


 One might think that nostalgia for the past is an important ingredient in the art of Philip C. Curtis, considering his nearly exclusive use of turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century themes. But there is little human fulfillment found in this past, as depicted in his paintings. His is no yearning for a mythical "Golden Age." Curtis deploys early-century people in old-fashioned costumes and Victorian architectural settings to comment on disenfranchised modern man. Curtis's people were troubled then; they're troubled now.


 Perhaps the key emotional ingredients in Curtis's art are loneliness, alienation, sadness, yearning, loss, repressed hope, intense feeling, but unexpressed sexuality. There also seems a pained, sometimes sardonic commentary on this unnecessary suffering caused by societal dehumanization and the conventional beliefs of the day that confuse and limit people, taking them away from their own inner truth and needs.


 Cutis's people aren't the craggy structures of sinew, flesh and bone found in the art of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. They are doll-like, toy-like, cylindrical, symbolic; but they nonetheless overflow with feeling, personality and presence. They are the tools and building blocks he uses – like an architect, playwright or stage director – to construct his richly complex vision of humanity and his experiences in life, his feelings about the world, about himself, his family, his past and present...his present perception of life as it was shaped by the past. He does this with courage, steadfastness and dignity.


 The desert is an ever-present symbol of the aridity of this limited life, the wasteland of modern existence, as well as the everyday backdrop of the artist's life in Arizona. Old-fashioned buildings, as lonely as the people, stand by themselves in the middle of its vastness. Architecture looms large in Curtis's work as the expression and symbol of the world his people occupy. It is ornate, often Victorian, sometimes phantasmagoric. The architecture is as psychologically charged as the people, serving to underscore the human drama. It is the stage on which Curtis moves his players.


 Circuses, processions and bands are important themes in Curtis's paintings, in both positive and negative ways. Curtis loved circuses as a child, as a source of life, adventure, freedom and excitement. But he often depicts them involved in sham and desolation – circus wagons are immobilized in desert sands, or painted three-dimensionally on a decaying, two-dimensional surface – as if to say life isn't what it seems, isn't as solid or as genuine. Our idealistic dreams of childhood cannot survive, exist in adulthood because they become mired in the grim realities of a corrupt world. Processions provide people an opportunity to be together, to defeat isolation and loneliness, but they often seem oblivious of one another, as if marching robots. Band offer musical entertainment and gaiety, express the "vitality and clangor" of life; but they also imply the bandwagon artifice of lock-step, conventional society. The trumpeting and oompah-pahing of a Victorian band cannot hide or ease the suffering in the hearts of lonely men and women, cut off from themselves and each other, unable to live normal, uncomplicated lives; unable to act upon natural human needs and desires because some trauma has undone them.


 We will never know what, if any, specific experience shaped the artist's life, causing him to see the world with such sadness. There have been few artists more private than Philip C. Curtis. However, a major attribute of Curtis's creativity has been the turning of sadness into beauty. Paintings like "The Garden," 1976, and "Woman with Chair," 1983, depict women alone, the former in a beautifully painted, richly articulated arbor with a large central arch. She occupies a smaller arched niche to the right, in her own little world, as if contained – restricted – in a picture frame...or jail cell. The niche on the left is empty, emphasizing, we may presume, the absent lover who will never arrive. The "Woman with Chair" is rigid as a post, pinned against a wall at the rear of the painting like a butterfly on red velvet (Curtis uses columnar figures, tree trunks and actual architectural pillars to express the unyielding rigidity, the entrapment, the prison of life). A tall, golden chair nearer the viewer – like the empty arch – also awaits the lover, the human fulfillment that will never come.


 It seems not to make much difference whether Curtis's people are painted singly or in groups. They are still lonely and it in the confines of their minds or the vastness of the universe. In the masterful "Walk Through Forest," 1988, perhaps a dozen top-hatted men in dark suits and coats are as rigid and columnar as the tree trunks they seem glued to, which represent the immutability of their destinies. Each is in his own world, most oblivious of – or hardened to – their fate, with the exception of the emphasized man in the left foreground whose pale face (lightest in the picture) is filled with painted awareness of his loneliness.


 Curtis's superb "Bareback Riders" 1985, also takes place in a forest setting. Tree trunks again are like prison bars or the unrelenting stricture of life and society – or the warpings of our own minds – that limit us. The exuberance, grace and daring of the riders as they stand upright on the backs of racing white horses might seem to belie the entrapment theme of the trees and Curtis's work in general. But the horses and riders are so tiny, so miniscule compared to the dominating trees, that their seeming emotional and physical freedom is more an illusion, a courageous self-deception within restriction, than any effective reality.


 But, another interpretation of this beautiful painting may ultimately be more valid. Unusual in the work of Philip Curtis, the artist has created a positive view of the world, a vision of paradise; a rosy, glowing, golden-red, sunset world of child-like wonder; an ideal existence in a towering, transcendent, richly illuminated forest where humanity is completely safe and gloriously fulfilled. The picture is a metaphor for life as a vast God-given, paradisiacal playground, a resonating arena of nature at its most beautiful.


 Hats and umbrellas play important roles in the Curtis symbolism. Men's top hats and bowler hats seem expressive of their maleness, their authority as males – relative and ineffectual, to say the least, given the weakened human state of both maleness and femaleness in Curtis's world. The women often wear broad-brimmed hats or carry parasols (as some men do, as well). Both are symbols of self, as well as conveying the idea of protection, shelter from the storm of unkind destiny.


 In "Walk in the Shade," 1991, two women, one with a hat, facing us, the other, her back to the viewer, hatless, but with a parasol, participate in a painful psychological triangle. The key element of the picture is the small, black top hat of a man in the relatively distant background. We see only the hat and part of his blurred head over the shoulder of the woman with her back to us, significantly walking toward the man. This painting is somewhat unusual in Curtis's work, because it implies the possibility of emotional connection and sexual fulfillment. The man's hat is black; the woman is a brunette. Our eyes and Curtis's composition inevitably link the two through the adjacent darks. The woman is dressed in bright red, the color of passion. An intriguing clincher to this tale of the differing fates of two women, is that the woman coming toward us – away from the man – has a red hat on, laden with flowers. In other words, her feminine desire (the flowers and color red) is suppressed, trapped inside her head, only being "thought" about (the hat "on" her head represents the thoughts "in" her head). She is unable to act upon the impulse of her needs, and the pain of repression is clear upon her face. This psychodrama takes place in a leafy, fertile forest, nearly a bower, unusual in Curtis's work for its softness, as if to express a more open, natural, responsive state.


 Tiny dogs appear in Curtis paintings, often seeming more alert, alive and open to life than the people they accompany. They are like sparks of life that somehow yet remain aglow in a semi-extinguished human world, truth-telling witnesses to the tragic drama distorted by its human participants. Curtis has said, "I'm the dog. That's me, the observer. The other dog, the one running away, is the other me, the one that still wants to join the circus." This observation, if not specifically in reference to the painting "Farewell to the Band," 1967, certainly applies. A woman waves goodbye to a man sitting in the back of an ornate wagon (a hearse? Perhaps it is "The Big Goodbye," the farewell of death), while a band plays on top of it. One small dog chases the wagon, not wanting to let the man go. The other dog sits back, halfway between the man and woman, watching.


 The "Tea Party," 1964, appears to say a lot about Curtis, his dog surrogates, and perhaps his life and feelings as a child that formed him as an adult. Three women occupy an ornate porch, two respectably repressed in black and gray seated at a table, the third stylish in a flaming red gown, looking longingly toward a golden sky. All are turned away from, or ignore, a tint boy clinging to, looking through, the bars of the porch railing, clearly jail-like and metaphorical, related to Curtis's use of tree trunks as jail bars. The boy looks to his right, away from the woman in red. Directly next to him is a broken bar lying on the porch floor. He is aware of the possibility of escape through the nearby, enlarged opening, but seemingly unable to take advantage of it. A small dog, near him at another gap in the bars, intently looks through the opening, aware that it too may run through. This painting directly connects Curtis to dogs as symbols of himself. It also allows us to respectfully intuit his feelings of entrapment as a child. The woman in red is obviously his mother or the dominant female in his life. With her fiery red gown and intense fixation on the distance, her life passions, whether sexual or everyone's burning desire to have a meaningful existence, are obviously thwarted. She vehemently wishes herself somewhere else. As parents implant both good and ill in their offspring, whether or not they say a word, she has transferred her suffering to the child, who wishes to escape the stress of such a convoluted life.


 In "The Gap," 1970, Curtis clearly expresses the burden we bear from our pasts, the deficiencies in our upbringing or other bad experiences from early life. Four figures, three men and a woman, carry naked babies – themselves as children – on their shoulders or heads, as if they must be affected for a lifetime by their pasts. One supposes the nude figures might be angels rather than the proverbial "monkey on the back," but there is little in Curtis's work to support this.


 Paintings like "The Organ" and "Doorway" are somewhat atypical, though their emphasis on architectural structure obviously relates to the Victorian buildings and bandstands that populate Curtis's work. What is unusual, is the picture-filling, monolithic nature of the organ and doorway. The organ hovers ominously in space, dark and massive, but contradictorily seeming to exist on a tattered, two-dimensional surface, an aging piece of paper, perhaps. The classically simple post and lintel frame of the door exists in the middle of the desert, attached to nothing but the sand. However, the large, dark door is still open as if that is the way one must pass in order to play by the rules (that the door has established!), despite being able, in theory, to go around it. Both the organ and doorway are huge and disquieting. Thinking of their monumental rectangular forms and the dates they were painted – "The Organ," 1966, "The Doorway," 1996 – they are, in a sense, like bookends of a painter's career.


 Curtis has a wonderful feeling for color, rich, harmonious, lush and luminous, emphasizing red and gold, which are themselves quite beautiful and strikingly symbolic colors. Red, of course, is the color of blood, of life on earth, its passion, energy, sexuality. Like blood, sex and life itself, red can be the color of danger. Gold is the color of God, the spirit, haloes, divine light, hope, profound insight, divine understanding. Gold, as a desirable mineral, is valued in part (unconsciously) for these symbolic characteristics intrinsic to its color. Curtis, then, through these colors, may be expressing in his painting the contradiction of both dichotomy and desired melding of earth and heaven, flesh and spirit, humanity and divinity...problem and resolution.


 The artist's sense of design is impeccable. The final construction and appearance of his paintings seem inevitable. His figures "must" relate to each other as they do, and to the architecture they inhabit. They have no choice. Curtis's psychological imperative and artistic insight dictate that it be so. Curtis's painstaking technique pays off, as well, not only in design and personal statement, but in the rich paint surfaces that result from continuing attention.


 Philip C. Curtis has devoted a lifetime to his art. He might be highly commended for that alone, for his perseverance, integrity and commitment. But, beyond this, his unique message is a compelling, valuable and thoroughly genuine one...poetic, and rich in emotional resonance and complexity. He is an artist of significant achievement, an artist with something serious, important and meaningful to say. This cannot be said about many artists today. He is telling us as much about ourselves and our world as he is about himself.








Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms