Image: The Pink Tree, 1999. Oil on canvas.
EARLY IN HIS CAREER, John Currin, whose work is currently on view at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, generated discussion for being a representational painter, one of those lost souls still trying. As far back as the New York School, representational painting had been completely out of sync with postwar tastes, and even if you slipped in there, like Odd Nerdrum or Vincent Desiderio, you were fighting not to be dismissed as an illustrator, which meant extinction in the death match of New York art politics. Meanwhile there are great representational painters all over the United States, especially in California, but they were “regional,” and stood no chance of ever being invited to the Big Show by the champions of one conceptual practice or another back East. But no matter, representation in New York made a comeback in the 1990s because it never went away. All that remained to be seen was who would break out of the murky pack of figure painters and do something that stood out. Currin was that guy. And he did it with some very weird-looking paintings mainly of women, many of which are oddly mean-spirited, showing contempt for their subject. While unpleasant, they are downright honest and upsetting in their forthrightness. That part of his project is authentic and got him out in the open.
Sno-bo, 1999. Oil on canvas.
His early portraits are mannerist to a point of looking early American. He seems to have had a kinship with itinerant portrait artists, people who had not had a proper schooling in life drawing yet managed to capture the essence of a person in a different, almost monstrous or primitive manner. Ms. Omni (1993) is like that, as are Minerve and Park City Grill, both paintings from 2000. They are really striking and representative of a range of paintings he made that have the look of caricature. The women appear strained, their necks distended, their foreheads oblong, a faraway madness about their demeanor. They are distinct. And then he would drop into the middle of the collection of oddities a sweet little piece like Sno-bo (1999), a fantasy elfin figure from another world, almost straight out of a Disney movie. Just as you were coming to terms with lovely little Sno-bo, you had to deal with a series of paintings of women with enormous breasts and faces painted with thick, impasto oil, making it look like they had serious cases of acne (The Bra Shop, 1997). Was this a send-up of the inner demons of the American male, or some attempt to explain why women had body issues? I think it was probably what was inside Currin’s own sexuality that he needed to assemble in his consciousness, and what, by that point in his career, he felt he had permission to put up in public and sell. Artists work with autonomy, but that doesn’t mean they do whatever they want. It means they do whatever their own self-constructed rules tell them they can, and all rules have their built-in limits based on bias and unconscious assumptions.
Currin has suffered lots of slings and arrows along the way on his rise to art stardom, and the barbs have just bounced off as if made of Jell-O. He emerged at just the right moment, when the culture wars were fading from exhaustion and cries of multiculturalism, identity, and gender equality had lost much of their sting. The Market was on everyone’s lips as the grand mediator, wielder of new mercantile metrics for inclusion in the Big Show. Currin’s work has been criticized as inauthentic, sexist, and pornographic (see, for instance, articles here, here, and here), all of which seems to have only redoubled the love affair his base of collectors, museum directors, and curators have for his latest work. The complaining has been great for public relations, resulting in earnest discourse that has bitter detractors answered by breathless academics, arts professionals, and auction house denizens extolling the mastery of his work. If I were Currin, I would be overjoyed. No one has pulled off a coup quite like this since Richard Prince, doing so much with so little.
Currin the careerist is up for target practice because he asks for it. He’s incredibly ambitious, wants to run with the big boys, and is happy to be a one-percenter and do as his rule book says he can. Is he a major artist? I don’t know, and you can’t know if the main metric is sales records. The real measure is the crucible of time, so check back in 150 years and see if his work is still hanging. But he is a major player and his work is a luxury good. Maybe he is not that calculating and suffers in private, like he says he did in 2003 when he had a creative block until he found pornography a few years later, which jolted him out of his lethargy and has given him a long run to the bank since. More on that in a minute.
Much has been made of Currin’s traditional technique, but truthfully if you walk through the Met or the Frick Collection you can see he paints no better or worse than an assistant in Tiepolo’s studio. And while that is pretty damn good, it says more about our lowered expectations for representational painting, and our real ignorance of who is painting in this country. But I like the way he can handle paint, and that he understands how to use oil glazes and color and light. The results are often pretty in the best sense, and his drawing is excellent. Comparisons between Currin and Norman Rockwell are often cited, because Rockwell was a popular and conservative American artist and illustrator who used photo-based techniques that artists like Currin elaborate upon. In the end, there are only so many ways to paint a representational work. It is not rocket science, but it is hard to do well. Look at Maenads (2015), at the smooth and the rough, the play of colors, the impasto whites on the drapery, and the linear touches in the faces. These are all deftly applied, and done with a sure and accomplished hand.
Yet, Currin is a style monger. What’s that? Someone who is “art smart” and slyly appropriates other styles and other people’s images and incorporates elements of them into their own work, altering them just enough to make it all appear recontextualized. Or better yet, part of a lineage, a grand Tradition that is something conservatives hold dear. The underlying historical references are comfortable, appear intelligent, making us feel we are not just a bunch of diaspora brats but instead are conservative in the best sense by retaining the best of what we have learned. His bizarre painting of two women hanging onto an armature of tree stumps (The Pink Tree, 1999) appears to have jumped straight from the 14th-century easel of Lucas Cranach, but it’s fun to look at. “Art smart” is a visual strategy well mined by hip art academy careerists over the past forty years. Here we have the final arousal of the insipid academic posturing of postmodern art, when it resorts to toe-gazing, talking about itself to the point that it stops looking outside at a larger worldview. I mean, ISIS is raging through the Middle East and we are concerned about what’s happening inside the art world? Can we expect a little bit more from our artists, to get us the hell away from these art school games, from the queasy feeling that our creative best is shallow and fey? Perhaps Currin might have another midlife crisis and dump pornography and try his hand at revisionist history painting.
But meanwhile: pornography and sex. It’s where the heat is and he’s scored with this one, copying photos from Swedish porn magazines and gussying them up in Technicolor on canvases with expensive frames. A huge discussion has ensued, and Currin has people both up in arms and standing in line to buy the canvases for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The paintings are often straight copies of existing photographs, women with glistening vulvas, impossibly shaped breasts with fishhook nipples, and succulent mouths that have pastel lips slightly agape. Is it sexist, erotic? Look at The Teenagers (2007), which has been compared with Courbet’s The Origin of the World. Does this mean every time an artist lets a hairy vagina hang out they get art world cred and can cite art history? With Currin or any artist who just copies pornography, as in Mechanicsburg (2008), you may or may not like the work, and you have undoubtedly already formed your own notion about what is and what is not pornographic. I know women who look at Currin’s work and have wet hot fantasies, as do just as many men when they look at some of those body parts he paints. Is the art sexist? Well, of course it is. Hasn’t Currin ever heard of “the male gaze”? Has he been living under a rock? Currin likely believes that it doesn’t matter. So either he doesn’t feel they are sexist, he is neutral because the images are appropriated, or he feels the paintings are an extension of himself — and if a learned cultural sexism, then totally honest. But his art is way too calculated, images filled with hundreds of decisions in their making, to fully buy that last premise. In the painting Altar (2015), the model proffers a subtle but obvious invitation, which could stand in for Currin’s calculated strategy to acquire the viewer’s attention on an aesthetic, erotic, or prurient level. Someone is having the last laugh.
After thinking about Currin’s work for a few days, it just didn’t stay with me. But it did make me feel that there is so much more at stake in the world that is truly sexist that we should be making more serious efforts to do something about. I would rather see our collective efforts put into real sexist degradations like the lack of equal pay, or women being raped in the military, or the disparity of women receiving educations around the world — areas where sexism is far more serious than in ultimately inconsequential paintings in a famous Beverly Hills gallery for the one-percenters. And so the final question here is why write about Currin’s work in this vein at all? It is because people in power are enjoying and promoting his images, and these very same people can have an effect on the overall culture of sexism if they thought more deeply about what they are supporting and truly wanted to make a difference.