Park City Grill, 2000 – Oil on canvas. 38x30x1-1/2in. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Justin Smith Purchase Fund, 2000. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York and Sadie Coles HQ, Ltd., London. Photograph by Andy Keate. © John Currin
John Currin’s paintings, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago through August 23, present an encyclopedia of formal elements from the stylebooks of Courbet, Manet, Boucher, Tiepolo, El Greco, and Cranach. The subjects and composition – lifted from popular sources like high school yearbooks, life insurance ads and mail order catalogs – are shared with more recent art.
But the effect of Currin’s paintings are definitely more than a simple pastiche of these two obvious parts. As Peter Schjeldahl puts it, ‘Currin unties extremes of low-down grotesquerie and classical elegance.’ *1 What is it that makes these paintings work?
Ms Omni, 1993 – Oil on canvas. 48x38in. Stefan T. Edlis and Gael Neeson Collection. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery. Photograph by Peter Muscato. © John Currin
First, there is in Currin’s body of work to this point in his career, a clear conceptual development over time. Viewed in the order that each piece was produced, the viewer first encounters mousy, near-expressionless students taken from yearbook photos and featuring neutral, monocromatic backgrounds (painted in 1989 and ’90, these early paintings are not included in the MCA show). These staid young women give way to more dynamically composed middle aged women. Among the latter are several figures with significantly tweaked proportions– ‘Nadine Gordimer’ (1992), for example, is a portrait of a real-life novelist whose head couldn’t possibly be as big as Currin paints it–or references to the process of painting– ‘The Moved Over Lady’ from 1991 portrays a grimacing woman with short-cropped hair placed left-of-center on the canvas.
Lovers in the Country, 1993 – Oil on canvas. 52x40in. Collection Andrea Rosen, New York. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photograph by Fred Scruton. © John Currin
In the mid-nineties, Currin divided his solitary sitters into absurdly paired romantic couples. Clumping the figures together awkwardly dead-center on the canvas. The men in these pictures are portrayed variously as bearded women, great wide-eyed birds, or threadbare members of an outmoded Southern gentry.
Heartless, 1997 – Oil on canvas. 44x36in. Collection of Nina and Frank Moore, New York. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photograph by Fred Scruton. © John Currin
In the late nineties, Currin turned out several groupings of nudes against black backgrounds. These paintings, while betraying an obvious debt to the conventions of Northern Renaissance painting, are less about tacit historical references. Instead, this series marks the point at which Currin began to paint for the pure joy of it. Missing from these paintings is the conceptual mugging of ‘The Moved Over Lady’ or the motionless, hieratic yearbook subjects. These figures, lovingly constructed by means of traditional layering technique, exhibit sinuous, mannered proportions. The artist himself has said that he was intentionally getting away from social and political content with these paintings, preferring to ‘just get lost in the reverie, which makes the painting matter, makes it good, makes it great. *2
The Pink Tree, 1999 – Oil on canvas. 78x48in. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 2000. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photograph by Fred Scruton. © John Currin
Finally, there are the similarities across this progessive continuum. While Currin’s paintings look at first glance to be disingenuous, hiding behind a veil of irony and cleverness, upon further inspection it is precisely the forthright, honest, truth-telling of these pictures which is so striking. Instead of seeking at all costs to avoid being called shallow or misogynistic, Currin’s artmaking intentionally embraces the ‘dumb’ and the ‘clich’d’. *3
Fishermen, 2002 – Oil on canvas. 50x41in. Sender Collection, New York. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photograph by Oren Slor. © John Currin
Turrin’s nude and hardly-dressed figures are sexualized, certainly, but are in fact so obviously passive, so objectively about sex, that they promote a refreshing candor on the subject and its time-worn relation to both fine-art and popular representation. To be sure, this can be uncomfortable, and even offensive (In 1992 the critic Kim Levin suggested viewers boycott Currin’s show at the Andrea Rosen gallery), but on the other hand the conflation of a debased, contemporary portrayal of masculine desire with the ideal nude has been an artistically provocative idea going back at least as far as Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1865).
*1. The Elegant Scavenger, ‘The New Yorker’ Feb. 22 march 1, 1999
*2. From ‘Interview with John Currin’ conducted by Rochelle Steiner, in ‘John Currin’ (exhibition catalog), 2003, p77
*3. Dee discussion of cliche in ‘John Currin: Oevres/Works: 1989-1995’ Etant Donnes, 1995, p 40
Date: 3rd May – 24th August 2003
Place: Museum of Contemporary Art
Aderess: 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, USA
The exhibition will be at the Serpentine Gallery, London, from September 9 through October 26, 2003, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from November 20, 2003 to February 22, 2004