It is a
perversely exciting thing, the encounter in New York between the Norman Rockwell
traveling exhibition at the Guggenheim and John Currin’s new show of paintings
in Chelsea. Facing each other across town, they take on the stock roles of victim
and victimizer meeting in a public lavatory. Innocent Rockwell returns just
as the nation most desires the flag-shrouded myth of "normalcy." Currin,
ever the spoiler, twists the arm of normalcy and roughly sticks a finger up
is a word rarely used in the art world today, yet it fits the pictures of John
Currin to a T. The morality he contravenes is not just Rockwell’s sanitized
postwar vision of Caucasian uniformity (that would be too easy) but also the
rigid mores of yesterday’s radicals turned today’s finger-wagging
fogies: the inflexible feminists, the poststructuralist professors, the irrelevant
semioticians, the Marxist installation artists, the identity-art freaks. Ten
years after his inclusion in a group show in New York raised a storm of p.c.
protest, John Currin is as devoted to frustrating accepted standards of right
thinking and good taste (or what passes for it in the art world) as ever.
immorality has taken the form of a peculiarly weird brand of figuration during
a decade of American art that he helped shape. At a time when the art world’s
virtuous pseudo-theoreticians reduced painting to a retrograde exercise (one
priest of programmatic postmodernity called the practice "a shorthand code
for an entire edifice of institutional domination exerted through the collector’s
marketplace and the modern museum"), Currin advanced the idea of painting
as "a kind of unnatural thing." He worked against the puritan grain
of American contemporary art and embraced painterly pleasure in its most unthinkable,
least celebrated variants: namely, in pathetically sexist depictions of women,
ridiculous portraits of haplessly demode men and what the artist has called
his artistically "lustful or low urges."
by a Liberace-like love of kitsch, his exceptional painting skill, a disdain
for artistic social critique and a genuine love of the painted figure, Currin
has fashioned some of the most beautiful and vulgar pictures of our time. The
comparisons to Balthus, though fatuous, are always tempting (I heard the artist
himself invoke them on one occasion). Unlike Balthus, a late addition to surrealism
and something of a parasite on the body of late modernism, Currin and his work
represent much more than erotic mystery or repressed perversion. Currin’s
pictures form a solid cornerstone for the reestablishment of brush and oil work
in today’s art world. Along with the work of a few contemporaries, most
notably Lisa Yuskavage, they engage the very fundamentals of painting as a sneakily
communicative practice in our new age.
at the intersection between the Old Masters and popular visual fare, Currin
has revamped the age-old female figure in the guise of present day cliches.
Big-bosomed bimbos from truckstop calendars populate his early work, as well
as neurotic portraits of pinched society ladies. Later paintings invoke–besides
visual vernacular like William Hamilton’s haughty New Yorker drawings
and Playboy’s Varga girls–variously, the diaphanous beauties
of Botticelli; the slender-waisted nudes of Lucas Cranach; the elegantly distorted
girls of Ingres; the emotional reticence of Manet’s plain Janes.
Currin explained before his small-scale but important 1997 exhibition at the
Museum of Modern Art, "I think what I do is to find a cliche and try to
believe in it." Arguably, the biggest cliche this artist has entertained
up to now is the traditional practice of painting women. A vehicle he has ridden
to a region beyond the wrong-headed, right-thinking utopias of postminimal art,
Currin has used his ludicrously objectified pinups and Mrs. Robinsons to afford
him what every real painter’s heart desires: to paint colors and shapes
On the verge
of his first major museum retrospective, in the fall of 2002, Currin has recently
chosen to present less a full-on exhibition of paintings at Chelsea’s Andrea
Rosen Gallery than a collection of recent major and minor works. The 10 works
on paper–all of women and done variously in charcoal, chalk, pastel, gouache
and conte crayon on antique-looking colored paper–are hung together in
informal, nonthematic clusters and set the mood of a vaguely decadent Arthur
Schnitzler drawing room for a half-dozen painted doozies that easily figure
among the painter’s best.
painting, The Lobster, presents a 21st-century version of an 18th-century
still-life set nonchalantly upon a lady’s horizontally upended head and
neck. Behind the lady’s ear are tucked one baguette, two fish, a bunch
of grapes, five lemons, a jar of water, a violin and the lobster that gives
the painting its name. Painted with all the delicacy of a Chardin and illuminated
by a clear, no-nonsense light the artist seems to have borrowed from Courbet,
Currin’s picture revisits the contemplative note of these ancestors of
"pure painting" while sounding a modern contemptuous note for his
female quasi-subject. (Is she really dumb as a table?)
three other paintings recycle the painting styles and compositions of past masters
(with Currin, it’s hard to keep up). The first, Odalisque, presents
a nude portrait of Currin’s wife, the artist Rachel Feinstein, draped over
a table in the theatricalized attitude of Mantegna’s dead Christ. Another
painting, a tondo titled Blond Angel, features the same subject (one
suspects the artist partly intends to present his wife as Everywoman, though
the idealization is evident) with flowing locks that echo Caravaggio’s
round portrait of Medusa. In both cases, Currin deflates the fearfulness and
drama of his historical sources, opting to record a sort of blithe calmness
instead, perhaps in representation of his own painterly joy: Blond Angel, for
example, stares out smilingly where Caravaggio paints a severed head, while
Odalisque peeks out flirtatiously behind a pair of unrealistic, cartoony feet.
painting to reach back into art history for visual sustenance is by far the
exhibition’s best and most enigmatic. A picture of a pair of Westchesterites
in horticulturist togs, The Gardeners is a piece of pure magic sparked
from the meeting of an increasingly accessible past and our oversaturated present
(think Internet and cheap air travel). Directly referencing Gustave Courbet’s
unadorned The Stone Breakers, Currin’s painting portrays his figures’
activity in front of a pillared mansion and a parked Rolls instead of a barren,
rocky field. Rather than break rocks, the faceless couple deliver a planter
into a freshly dug hole. Where Courbet offered an epoch-making glimpse at what
Baudelaire called "the heroism of modern life," Currin posits a bourgeois
narrative that is as pointless as a cul de sac.
help but think, however immoral the thought, that Currin’s series of elaborate
and shifting quotations are chiefly a game, an intellectual ruse that permits
him to lavish an amazing amount of painterly attention on, say, creamy female
flesh or a pair of striped gardening gloves. Yet his paintings strike a chord
precisely because we know that, in today’s world, there are no easy answers
to the spiny problem of painterly representation. In interviews Currin has admitted
to "looking at old art…because those are the best pictures," and
comparing the act of painting the figure today with "writing show tunes."
Somewhere in the balance between those two statements lies the nub of Currin’s
frustrated morality–a firm belief in a practice and tradition that cannot
be invoked without at least acknowledging some degree of futility in the venture.
Currin," through Dec. 15 at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 W. 24th St. (betw.
10th & 11th Aves.), 627-6000.