End of empire

Human cargo: “I wanted to teach myself a new vocabulary to convey more subtle, complex emotional stuff,” says artist Margaret Curtis.
Human cargo: “I wanted to teach myself a new vocabulary to convey more subtle, complex emotional stuff,” says artist Margaret Curtis.

Margaret Curtis’ paintings were once described by an art critic as looking like “the day after the party.” That was 10 years ago, when hyperbolic feminine themes were rampant in Curtis’ paintings of parade floats and giant plastic flowers.

At that time Curtis was one of several female artists, like Sue Williams, responding to what they saw as a male-dominated art world’s notions of “correct painting.” By using “girlie” motifs, pastel colors and cake-decorating tools, Curtis says “I really wanted to paint in a way that was despicable or anathema to everything that was shoved down my throat [in art school].”

Fast forward to End of Empire, Curtis’ current exhibit at Flood Gallery in the River Arts District, and her first solo show since 2004. Gone is the bombastic painting style that Curtis was known for a decade ago. The new paintings are more representational, with greater care given to the figure. Still, Curtis’ palette of nearly psychedelic hues remains consistent with the aggression of her early work. “I really don’t want my paintings to be put in the category of “realism,” says Curtis. “I use strong supersaturated color to fight that notion.”

End of Empire
comprises six epic paintings and several drawings by Curtis produced over the last two years. The narratives offer psychological portraits composed from photographs of Curtis’ family. “Loaded” depicts a middle-aged man seated in a rickshaw, grasping the seat of the bicycle like a phallus. Curtis has painted herself as the pregnant operator of the rickshaw; she appears in control and yet burdened by the weight of her human cargo. Her tight vintage Pucci shirt has pulled up to reveal a full belly that is at once vulnerable and potent. “So much of my own family burden is caught up in colonialism,” says Curtis. “The paintings are as much about the end of that empire in my own psyche.”

The significance of Curtis’ narratives, which she says are “fiction but based on real-life scenarios,” can be pondered at any distance. But up close, Curtis’ painterly skill takes precedence. Her ability to render the precision of stripes on a seersucker suit with just the sweep of a combing tool is remarkable, as are her reflections of light in glass, cigarette smoke, dizzying beams of sunlight bursting through a flower shed, gilded pages of a bible and crocheted bikini top created by literally weaving strands of paint together.

Through the use of common crafting items Curtis invents a lexicon of mark-making that is astonishing. “Paint is much more plastic than people realize,” says Curtis. “You can approach it like clay and build it up in ways that the realist [painters] aren’t concerned with.”

In “Abandon(ment)” a cast of characters converge on the runway of a tropical airport as confetti twirls around them from an undetermined source. Masked-off portions of the painting reveal strawberry pink under-paint that cuts through deluxe strokes of buttery over-paint. A girl spins casually, hair whipping in the wind in an everyday gesture that is immediately recognizable.

“Having children made me want to examine my own childhood,” says Curtis. “I wanted to teach myself a new vocabulary to convey more subtle, complex emotional stuff.”

End of Empire will be on display until May 25 at Flood Gallery in the Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St. 254-2166. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. margaretcurtisart.com

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