Clem Curtis doesn’t ‘baby’ his paintings

Influences span Renaissance masters to ’80s pop art

Published on July 26, 2013
Artist Clem Curtis at his studio in his home in St. John's. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

“I’m so brutal with the paint.” Clem Curtis is in his downstairs studio — one of two he has in his house — surrounded by several large pieces in different stages of progress.

The colours crackle (“I like to work in hot colours”), energy that also radiates from Curtis’s dynamic application. Hence his comment on how he treats the paint.

Creating a work means pulling something to the surface, a technique of exploration, almost excavation.

They become more real and less realistic all at once.

“There are many, many layers and it gets rough and I don’t baby them. Although they’re a little like babies in that they’re resilient.”  

To finesse this, he’s researched recipes for glazing from the Old Masters, especially Titian, who could work with 50 layers of oil and double-boiled linseed. This lends an incredible tactility to Curtis’s pieces; they have heft, thickness. They also have size, projecting a presence and command.

“I like painting large anyway. Painting that size is freeing if you can afford it and make a place for it in the world.”

He’s not sure what makes him want to paint an individual portrait. The subjects just have to have “something.”

One of his current pieces is

of actor/writer Ruth Lawrence, whom he’d been wanting to paint for 10 years. He considers again, the why behind it.

Something about blue, maybe? Always something blue, the blue of the sea. The blue in her black hair.

As a starting point Curtis takes shots with a digital camera, and prints them out in black and white. They are a vital initial tool.

“The unsuspecting photograph, the ones where you’re not quite ready, that’s usually the one everything comes from.”

The image “is drawn in exactly.” He uses the photographs “until I get myself set up and everything’s where it’s supposed to be.”

Then he puts the photos away and brings the paintings along on their own, focusing on the canvas.

He can have as many as 15 pieces on the go at a time.

“I just go with whatever feeling I have at the time. The works are in series and not in series at the same time. The abstract landscapes, the portraits, and the mixed media, with sealskin.”

His workday starts at 6 a.m., listening to the radio “and cleaning up the mess I probably made the day before. I’ve got myself set up so there’s never nothing to do. There’s no excuse not to work.”

And that work schedule equals freedom. It’s not just the way he paints — one imagines large gestures — but that he can do it at all. “I can concentrate. I don’t have to do anything else. I don’t have to deliver pizza or drive a cab or move to Alberta. I’m able to get up and do this work.”

The last year has been “a bit hectic.” He started the big portrait paintings with a view towards an exhibition in a year or so, “to have that show I’ve always wanted to have, with just portraits.”

He also “looks at art all the time.” Besides the revered Old Masters (“da Vinci was a monster, he just knew everything”) he is very influenced by American Pop artist Jim Dine.

“That’s who showed me I was going about it the wrong way, that I can do whatever I want.”

Other contemporary interests include the 1980s New York scene of Robert Rauschenberg, Julian Schnabel, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work was vigorous and highly physical in texture, embedded and incorporated with unexpected media.

These are elements Curtis has adapted as his own.

Curtis is represented by Christina Parker Gallery and his work will be part of an exhibition scheduled for September.