How painter Clem Curtis is drawn to a subject's gaze

In a new gallery show, artist Clem Curtis finds inspiration in faces that reveal emotions, including one inspired by the Russian punk rock trio Pussy Riot.

“What's in a look?” This simple yet philosophical question could have been a working title for Christina Parker Gallery's latest exhibit, New Paintings, by St. John's artist Clem Curtis.

Clem Curtis started a painting about the Russian punk rock band Pussy Riot immediately after seeing footage of them being attacked by police. (Wendy Rose)
Curtis' spring show focuses primarily on portraits, inspired by “the ongoing state of the human condition."

The exhibit, which houses over a dozen pieces, showcases intimate and expansive portraits of men, women and children. The artist chooses his portrait subjects as he finds them.

“It's an instant thing for me. I see someone or a picture and I gravitate to that. There's probably a psychological aspect of it," he said. 

"I can sense a history in the face or something like that. It's kind of complicated actually, because a lot of them are made for different reasons. That's what makes them unique as pieces.”

The expressive eyes showcased in Curtis' work are hauntingly beautiful. One subject looks pensive, while another looks angry. One seems happy while another appears indifferent.

Connecting viewer and subject

These well-communicated expressions creates a trifecta of questions: What emotion was the subject experiencing when this portrait was painted? What was the artist feeling while painting the piece? What does the viewer feel while viewing the finished product?

Clem Curtis poses with some of the canvases that were about to be hung as part of his new show at Christina Parker Gallery in downtown St. John's. (Wendy Rose)
These questions are precisely what the artist wants you to wonder while viewing the exhibit.

In his articulately worded artist statement, Curtis explains his recent portrait works: “It is my intention to reveal a sense of their momentary thoughts with me as the subject of their gaze. The immediate thought is to create a certain connection or communion between the subject and the viewer. I want each painting to be individual and to reveal the emotion of the artist, the subject and the viewer simultaneously.”

The pieces featured in the exhibit were handpicked by Curtis and gallery owner and director Christina Parker.

“I've been working on a few of the pieces for about a year and a half. Some of the other ones are new within the last couple of months. This show is selected pieces, basically picked out of what I've been doing for the last couple of years. We did leave some stuff out,” Curtis said.

“The way we narrowed it down this time was that we put everything in the same room and tried to sort of make an exhibit that looked good and had a flow going around the room. We'd take anything out that would interfere with that flow, and to give the pieces space too. They need to have breathing room.”

Inspired by Russian punk band

One of Curtis' larger pieces is a portrait of the notorious Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

“I'm a big fan of punk rock music,” the artist said. “The reason I painted Pussy Riot was because I don't want what they're trying to do to be forgotten, or what they're doing and the position they're in these days to just be swept under the rug when the next Miley Cyrus story comes out.”

Curtis was inspired by violent footage of uniformed police whipping members of the all-woman band with a leather cat o' nine tails as they attempted to record a music video.

“I was floored by that,” Curtis said, with a hint of disbelief still lingering at the thought. “I immediately went and bought the canvas.”

“I was watching their video and the image I painted was what I was staring at the first time I really listened to Pussy Riot, that first song, Kill The Sexist."

Even with the ski masks obscuring their faces, the portrait still begs the viewer to gaze deep into its eyes and look down into its soul, again posing questions about what people can say without uttering a word.

New Paintings runs until May 3 at the Christina Parker Gallery at 50 Water St. in downtown St. John's.