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The Paintings of Deborah Curtiss

by Harvey S. Shipley Miller

Art Connoisseur and Collector


While many contemporary artists have become so interested in the style, act, and concept of painting that these have become the subjects of their work, often without reference to their own experience or observation, Deborah Curtiss maintains in her paintings an interest in painting itself, modulated by a conscientious adherence to her own emotional and visual perception.

Although her paintings have identifiable subject matter, Curtiss falls squarely within the modernist idiom by using abstract, flat means for representational ends. Her work unites an intense interest in idiosyncratic shapes and diverse positions of a particular human figure (i.e., having unidentifiable physical personality), with a bold, fresh color sense that indelibly stretches one’s visual imagination —the acid test of great painting. Like Avery and Matisse, Curtiss is concerned with essential human forms conveyed with minimum of lines —the vitality in the paintings being governed by singing color and the taut, harmonious relationship of the pictorial elements.

Her figures, conscious of their “livedness” and relationship to the canvas surface and shape, are locked like pieces of a spare jigsaw puzzle into positions of optimal expressive balance by her unexpected point of view, her subtle, decorative color areas, her respect for the lyrical grace of the human form, and a simultaneous regard for both the primacy of the frontal plane and the (negative) spaces that caress the outline of the image. All of this is accomplished without sacrificing either the lyrical grace of the individual human form or the primacy of the frontal, pictorial plane.

In these figure-scapes, Curtiss creates a vital, valid, and unique visual statement by reinvigorating the figurative tradition with the lessons of Cubist compositional logic and its interest in surface, Fauvist color, and a radical reduction of the essence of the personality of a distinct human figure to its essence through an expressive contour. In so doing, she has created an important, singular body of work exemplary for its thaumaturgic beauty and its wisp of erotic elegance.

by Diana Whitney, Ph.D.
Communications and Appreciative Inquiry Specialist


Deborah Curtiss is a perceptive person who uses painting as her means of communication. She shares with those who view her art a personal vision that reaches into the depths of universal human existence. She paints visual metaphors, figuratively representing the duality of our struggle for a centered life: our need to coexist with nature and to be a peace within ourselves. Her paintings reflect an awareness of forces, both external and internal, that affect our being. Throughout her work, the nude figure is painted as a metaphor for that which is the essence of humanness. Curtiss utilizes a painted language rich in symbolism to portray life with great sensitivity.

Her work is composed of three pictorial elements: human figures, landscapes, and flora, masterfully interwoven and balanced by her astute use of line, color, and space. She paints the relationship between a figure and its ground, the human body as part of its own environment. One line may form both the curve of a breast and suggest the waves of the ocean, symbolically depicting the potential that exists for a natural balance between our environment and ourselves.

As colors interact, the spaces formed reinforce the sense of interdependence between the body and its world. Her paintings reflect her acute awareness of the relativity of color. She chooses soft, rich, and unstable colors rather than intense and saturated colors to create visual play and movement within her work. The inclusion of iridescent and metallic paints in some works creates a vision that alters as one moves, showing the importance of one’s perspective in assessing reality. Similarly, phosphorescent paint, which glows in the dark, utilized in some of Curtiss’s works, depicts and ‘other’ reality — that which is often overlooked in the humdrum and pressures of our ordinary lives.

It is Curtiss’s own personal perspective sensitively represented that confronts the viewer and pulls her/him into the painting. All of life is shown as beautiful and changing. In some paintings a larger image of the primary figure appears behind. This secondary figure symbolizes Curtiss’s experience that in all of us there is a larger, more magnificent human being yearning to emerge free of the fears and distresses that have caused us to settle for being less than we potentially are.

Branches and blossoms of flora exist in silhouette, outline, or transparent color. Figures appear in a space behind the flora, as though one is looking through a thicket. This symbolizes the confusion of today’s life and the need for individuals to see beyond the surface for fuller meaning to life.

The form and content of Curtiss’s paintings work together just as the environment and emotions of our lives are intertwined. Life is a process; its flow is felt as one views a Curtiss painting. Her work has rhythm and space by which the viewer is pulled into its depth. The experience can be both intellectual and sensual/emotional. The power in her ability to provide congruity between our intellect and our emotions is attained through her primary dedication to Art. For Curtiss, a painting must work as an abstract visual experience first, while thoughtful philosophical content can imbue it with substance and character. Her work is never merely an illustration of concepts, but a work of art in its own right. Having lived with one of Curtiss’s paintings, I have learned that, as the painting becomes part of our environment, we become the meaning of that painting. Her art is especially meaningful to those of us who strive to know our own identity and to understand how our very being is tied in with the world, internal and external, in which we live.

I encourage you to thoughtfully view the art of Deborah Curtiss. The visual experience itself is exciting and stimulating. And if you are, as I am, touched by her understanding and ability to visually symbolize the human struggle for balance, the impact may be a powerful force in discovering your life’s path. 

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