The Redemption of a Breast Man

John Currin makes paintings that no one can love unambiguously—except maybe Juggs, the magazine of choice for breast men. Describing his images of balloon-boobed women as "a mind-blowing art experience," Juggs lauded Currin for "paying attention to the worthy theme of big tits." Others have been less kind. Even when he was painting relatively mild pictures of anorexic ladies-who-lunch and overweight matrons, critics went moralistic around him, branding his work "obscene," "phallocentric," "terminally cynical," and "classist." Writing about his 1992 exhibition in these pages, Kim Levin ordered readers to "Boycott this show."

The latest line on Currin is "he's all about the paint." This is disingenuous, and brings us full circle to the dodgy it's-not-what-he-paints-but-how-he-paints-it defense used for David Salle's work. Currin opens one of the more unusual psycho-visual spaces in contemporary painting: a no-man's-land between what he is thinking and what he wants you to think about his thoughts. His art is an amalgam of the perversity and antimodernism of Balthus, the hermeticism of Jasper Johns and Salle, the brazenness of Mel Ramos and Peter Saul, and the old-masterish figuration of late André Derain. Currin is the anti-Baselitz—a painter who uses the figure as an enormous expressionistic device without elaborating on it. However intriguing his work is to look at, it is emotionally obdurate. The technique brings you in, the historical references get you going, but the opacity keeps you at arm's length.

Currin's is a transgressive, identity-driven art, like that of Kara Walker or Chris Ofili. The problem for the art world seems to be that he transgresses in the wrong direction, and the identity he deals with is white, straight, and male. Over the years, he has painted odious lounge lizards lolling with fresh-faced teenyboppers, fatuous hair-dressers, vacuous professors, and female cripples. Currin has claimed, "My most sexist-looking paintings are, in fact, my most anti-male." "That's what he thinks,"you may respond. But the paintings are freighted with self-hate. His men are never manly; they're always fools or fops, incomplete souls with unexamined needs—as twisted in their desire as the women are in form.

Looking directly into the face of love: Rachel and Butterflies (1999)
photo: Robin Holland
Looking directly into the face of love: Rachel and Butterflies (1999)

Currin's new paintings are different. Severely limited, localized color makes these works more idealized. They are not as sharp, startling, or acerbic as before. The bitter clarity is gone; the in-your-face hooters and Norman Rockwell kitsch of previous exhibitions has been transposed into something more subtle, old-fashioned, and even warm. And the torrents of sex and hate have subsided into wistful longings for female protection and the promise of redemptive love.

Currin vivisects and galvanizes fragments of visual information, and pools them to form new circulatory flows. Cobbled together from an ocean of sources—old master paintings, genre scenes, illustration, advertising, and magazine covers—Currin's creatures are completely artificial, yet familiar.

The women in this exhibition are nymphs, messengers, and muses teased out of paint—a cross between his early Breck girls and the overt sexual anomalies of his last show. The Pink Tree and The Old Fence feature a pair of naked women standing against a black background. Each figure is an exquisite corpse of styles: willowy Gothic legs, Botticelli thighs, Renaissance potbellies, and faces that combine Perugino's Madonnas and 20th-century fashion models. But their sensuality—not nasty so much as alluring—tells you the women are not Eves but Venuses. Compositionally, each painting replicates an annunciation, with one woman in profile, the other facing out, further suggesting chaste love and blessed ladies.

Homemade Pasta, the strangest painting in the show, is a scene of domestic contentment. It features two men making iridescent linguini. Happiness rules, while the sex, whether gay or straight, is once removed. Advancing the subplot of food and entertainment are two small modern genre paintings, one of a young professional woman seated before a birthday cake, the other a stylish Upper East Side hostess serving herself at a buffet. On opposing walls are portraits of female hoboes. Currin says these wayfarers are "ready to explore the world," but mostly they seem like celestial protectors, female Saint Christophers, or girls with hearts of gold.

In the revealing Rachel and Butterflies, Currin paints his wife, the artist Rachel Feinstein, and pulls the curtains back on deeper feelings. The one real person he portrays looks the most idealized and otherworldly. This tells you how powerful it is for Currin to look directly into the face of love. He transforms his marriage partner into an exalted Madonna of the butterflies, a modern Primavera, who gently raises her hand in a gesture of blessing. Depending on how you look at the jar resting beside her, Currin has inserted either a comic allusion to sex (a jug), to painting (a bottle of linseed oil), or to a gargoyle of dread (the empty vessel).

Currin has always painted boobs; he's a breast man. Now he's painting crotches, and wisps of pubic hair. But these women feel classical insofar as there is no hint of genitalia, or as one female student of mine put it, "no labial interface." Whether or not this suggests a childlike aspect to Currin's longing, it echoes the themes of enfolding devotion and immaculate love.

 
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