What is one to make of John Currin's paintings? Harnessing an increasingly sophisticated command of Old Masters techniques to the somewhat conceptual deconstruction of American advertising, Mr Currin has produced quite a few fascinatingly repellent pictures. That's usually the point of conceptual art, which in my book isn't really art at all but rather a species of psychological catalysis. Rarely, however, is such work perpetrated with genuine craftsmanship. All but bewitched by the press that Mr Currin, now 41, has been getting ever since a retrospective of his work opened at the Whitney Museum, I decided that I had to see for myself if the refrain common to all the reviews was true: Is Mr Currin truly an accomplished painter?
Yes, Mr Currin is a truly accomplished painter, although the quality of his achievement does not reproduce well. The show makes it clear that he has grown enormously in the fifteen years since settling in Manhattan. His recent pictures are far more interesting than his early ones, and he appears to have gotten a number of unpleasant obsessions out of his system - or at least to have refined them. The goofy kitsch of 'Big Lady,' 'Lovers in the Country' (both 1993), and 'Girl on a Hill (1995) has been exorcised. 'Girl on a Hill,' with its kewpie-doll blonde in a sea of neutral grass, dressed in blue and backed by blue skies and creamy clouds, brings the empty-calorie sentimentality of Thomas Kincade to mind, and amounts to a joke without a punchline. 'The Bra Shop' (1997), one of several almost embarrassing pictures from the late 90s, is a more difficult painting. The faces of the two hugely-breasted women in this picture have been painted with a palette knife, contrasting brutal expressionism against the suave, para-pornographic fluency of the rest of the picture. On my second walk through the galleries, I did not stop for another look.
None of John Currin's pictures would be easy, I suspect, to live with. Take two similar pictures from 2000, 'The Big Bow' and 'The Cuddler,' both of which appear to portray the same appealing woman. Both are beautifully painted, with lovingly rendered clothes and, in 'The Big Bow,' extremely fine hands. But there is something about the sitter's smile that interferes with the act of portraiture. It is not in fact a smile, but a grin - an advertising grin. Here it has the opposite of an advertisement's effect; instead of sedating the viewer into acquiescence, it begins to annoy, perhaps even to terrify. The transformation of a disposable commercial image into a work of fine art is rather like the burning of a stalled frame of movie film; sheer artistry consumes utter emptiness. The same effect is achieved on a grander scale in 'Stamford After-Brunch' (also 2000), a riveting study of suburban vacuity. Huddled before a large-paned window that suggests an elementary school, three women play at the naughtiness of smoking cigars over post-prandial martinis. The figure to the left is flashing the grin of a predator, or it could be a cry of dismay, while the figure on the right wears a ragged headdress that brings to mind Georges de la Tour's 'The Fortune Teller.' What appears at first glance to be a rather trivial composition deepens and darkens until it blossoms into a nightmare. But the nightmare is not on the canvas; it's in your mind, reverberating against memories of countless come-ons. Equally sinister are the nudes of the previous year. What's immodest about the Cranachian ladies in 'The Pink Tree' isn't their nakedness, but their Breck-girl simpering. John Currin's smiles are barriers to entry.
Equally off-putting is an approach to the depiction of men that Mr Currin has only recently abandoned. Early pictures, such as 'The Berliner,' show a cartoon face instead of a man's; reappearing in several paintings, this figure develops into a slow-witted Uncle Sam. Vestiges of clownishness persist as late as 'Home-Made Pasta' (1999), with the figure in profile (unlike his companion, clearly male) saddled with features more appropriate to a sappy children's book. Only in 'Two Guys' (2000), an almost challengingly straightforward - can a picture by Mr Currin be straightforward? - does Mr Currin break with satire. With 'The Producer' (2002), we're given another strange face, but it is the face of someone you may have had the misfortune to meet. Caricature hovers within the image, trembling beneath the sitter's very uneasy smile - a smile quite unlike the smiles that have gone before.
The last picture in the show, 'Thanksgiving' (2003), suggests that John Currin may be developing into a baroque Andrew Wyeth. There are no smiles here, but rather the preparations for a feast, rendered with a kind of rapture - and a turkey out of Norman Rockwell that overwhelms the too-small platter beneath it. You find that because the the three women aren't looking at you, you can enter the frame with something like comfort. The male nudes in 'The Fishermen' are actually turned away from us, their backs rippling with Rubensesque voluptuousness; their upraised arms, and the heap of fish at their side oddly suggest a scene from the Gospels. These pictures raise the possibility that Mr Currin is about to replace the conceptual apparatus that he has forged from references to and simulations of degrading commercial art with mystical, oneiric imagery. Certainly John Currin has reached a plateau of almost fabulous promise.
The Whitney show will run, I believe, into February 2004.
For a look at some of Mr Currin's images, click here. (December 2003)
Having paid a second visit to the Currin show shortly before it closed, I've been mulling over three reviews that appeared in neither The New York Times nor The New Yorker. Michael Kimmelman and Peter Schjeldahl, writing, respectively, for these publications, were of course hugely enthusiastic. Writing in The Nation, critic Arthur Danto joined the chorus of praise. Jed Perl in The New Republic and James Panero in The New Criterion, however, had nothing good to say about John Currin - nothing. Mr Panero was contemptuous, Mr Perl fairly hysterical, but both agreed that Currin is essentially an incompetent fraud. It's very clear that all these critics, except perhaps Mr Danto, have agendas in mind, and are not just looking at Mr Currin's pictures.*
What has kept me from writing more about John Currin is a mounting need to replace the term 'conceptual art.' Whatever 'conceptual art' might be, it is not art in my book, and for a simple reason: it does not make its principal appeal to my sense of beauty. It appeals to other faculties first, in particular my social conscience. But the other day, I was thinking about John Currin, and suddenly I could feel the logjam break. I had in mind three of his pictures, Ann-Charlotte (1996), Heartless, and The Cripple (both 1997), all of them apparent 'copies' of Cosmopolitan covers. While superficially attractive, even pretty, these paintings are obviously ironic, and, as such, critical of the magazine that inspired them. They capture perfectly the emptiness of Cosmo's allure - and that is what they are about. Why not call them, these paintings of John Currin's, works of visual criticism? I might come up with something better, but for the time being I've got a term that does not include the word 'art.' Visual criticism pursues two goals at once: to prompt a critical thought in the mind of the beholder while at the same time foreclosing intimacy with the work itself. Works of visual criticism make you think about what's wrong with the world while realizing that your attraction to 'art' is itself suspect.
Most of John Currin's work before 1999 is in fact what I'll call visual criticism. You can go on calling it conceptual art, as long as we agree that the pictures all have a point, which is nothing but an ironic detachment from their own surfaces, as if each of them were whispering, "Who would want to look at this sort of thing?" Beginning in 1989, the images are rather neutral, only subtly misshapen, but soon Mr Currin is presenting us with luscious blondes, freakish men, and Kinkade landscapes. The cuteness and the clownishness put us off right away. Then come the three pictures I've just mentioned. The irony here is very high, which is to say that it's very ambiguous: there is nothing immediately repellent about it. But the seductive airlessness of these images is frightening, and we reject them as we have rejected the earlier ones. (This is not to say that we reject the paintings.)
As if in fear of suffocation himself, John Currin then abandons these Loreleis for an astoundingly unattractive series of huge-bosomed women with palette-knife faces. Mr Currin is often mentioned in connection with Lisa Yuskavage, but her sumptuous nudes suffer a very different affliction. Their immense breasts are disfigurements of lust, bringing to mind the voluptuous masochism of Ann Rice's essays in pornography. Mr Currin's monsters remain clothed, the better to highlight the horror of their brutal faces, all of which suggest acid-burned Kewpie dolls. This is nightmarish work without being fascinating. It is bad-boy stuff, and Mr Perl and Mr Panero write about John Currin as though fixated by it.
What follows, however, looks like the work of a different artist altogether (a protean capability that itself elicits his detractors' ire). The delicate, mannerist nudes, painted against black backgrounds that bring Cranach to mind (if the nudes themselves don't quite) show, for the first time, that John Currin appears to delight in beautiful painting. There is a Botticellian thinness to the painted texture, but the skill with which the figures are executed undercuts, I think, any charge of incompetence. This man knows what he's doing, and he's able to do it. If these were his most recent paintings, however, I'd still be unsure of his objective, because while the simpering expressions of these ladies is not without a fifteenth-century precedent, it also evokes more recent waves of tacky advertisements. If John Currin knows what he's doing, perhaps he had better tell us.
Instead, he goes on to paint pictures that don't prompt the question. The enigmatic masterpieces that capped the Whitney show, The Fishermen and Thanksgiving, have cast irony altogether aside, and are about nothing but themselves. Sure, the fishermen bring the Gospels to mind, and Thanksgiving is said to represent the artist's wife at different stages of her life. But these (and many other) references are not critical. They do not provoke the essentially political (or, if you like, sociological) and distancing responses to painting that the earlier paintings do. They are more or less mysterious representations of human beings in different settings. And they are beautiful - obviously and vitally beautiful. Even the grossly raw turkey, resting in its watery blood, is beautiful. I pity the inability to see this.
And what of Stamford After-Brunch? I could look at this picture for hours. Yes, it's obviously critical, but invitingly so. It's critical in the way that Georges de la Tour's Fortune Teller is critical. In that picture, one of the glories of the Met's collection, a hideous crone distracts a self-important young man while her three assistants pick his pockets; he is too full of himself to fear these women, even as the painting itself invites us to anticipate the unpleasant surprise that awaits him. I'm not drawn to anybody in this picture, which, in its way, is a memento mori, but de la Tour's magnificent painting makes it hard to look away. The gals in Mr Currin's picture manage to combine the naiveté of de la Tour's youth with the up-to-no-goodness his robbers. Martinis after brunch? I don't know anyone aside from myself who would thus indulge; for these three young women, alone on a cold afternoon, such drinking seems the height of depravity. And those little cigars! Unlit, of course; the moment they're lighted, someone's going to be sick. So much for the story of Stamford After-Brunch. Its beauty arises from the conjunction of story, composition, and execution - just as de la Tour's does.
I don't mean to argue that John Currin's recent paintings are equally good. Home-made Pasta, a picture that, as I recall, Peter Schjeldahl found very disturbing, seems more than a little silly to me, a parody of something not worth parodying. The mystery at the heart of The Gardeners - what are these faceless people, with their empty pot and their empty hole in the ground, doing, exactly? - lacks interest, and I wish that Mr Currin had worked a little harder on the mansion in the background. I don't know what to make of Minerva, although it does remind me a bit of Fragonard's sporty pictures of his friends in dress-up. I have no idea whatsoever of where it is that Mr Currin is going, and I am prepared to be disappointed by whatever he does next, but at the moment I expect great things over the long term. John Currin has found a delight in painting beautifully (and skillfully) that must almost certainly inform his work from now on. (March 2004)
*These reviews appeared as follows: Arthur C. Danto: 'Bad Boy, Good Manners,' The Nation, February 2, 2004; Jed Perl: 'Beyond Belief,' The New Republic, February 16, 2004; James Panero: "Strange Fruit," The New Criterion, January 2004.
Copyright (c) 2004 Pourover Press