Eleven years ago, back when Andrea Rosen was on Prince Street, John Currin had his first gallery show. “Paintings of old women at the end of the cycle of sexual potential,” was how he described his own work in the press release, “between the object of desire and the object of loathing.” My tiny text for this paper’s art listings quoted him. “Apart from that,” I added, “they’re awful paintings. Boycott this show.” Those last three words have stalked me ever since. Quoted and requoted and paraphrased without the context of his quote whenever anyone has written about Currin’s work, they’ve grown less flippant and more strident as the quaint concept of political correctness recedes to oblivion.
I was wrong, of course. It’s not that his words weren’t provocative. “I meant it to sound mean. And I meant it to sound harsh,” he tells me on the phone. “I was pretty depressed in those days. I know it sounds like a lame excuse, but in terms of the loathing, I was loathing myself.” And it’s not that his pallid portraits of scrawny, post-menopausal women weren’t awful. But Currin’s subsequent oeuvre reveals an artist whose work is something other than merely misogynistic, sexist, and ageist. He doesn’t just cast a cruel eye on women of a certain age, but has proved to be an equal-opportunity employer of the mocking image. The starry-eyed ingenues, mega-boobed bimbos, insipid invalids, “badly put together parodies of men” (the artist’s words), cloying couples, society matrons, and full-bellied old-masterly nudes that inhabit his subsequent paintings fare no better than his early curdled crones. Young or old, male or female—”grotesquely ripe for plucking or grotesquely over the hill” as Robert Rosenblum gracefully puts it in the catalog text—they’re equally preposterous.
On the Whitney’s walls, Currin’s work proceeds to skewer not only clichés of women and parodies of men—mock-idyllic Lolitas, pathetic lotharios—but art itself: high, low, good, bad, and ersatz. Masterpieces by dead white males fare no better than the vulgar pictures favored by live ones. Everything goes quite deliberately wrong. What’s going on within the awkward image, behind the virtuosic technique, beneath the jaded surface? Even the canvas is too rough or too smooth. Currin plays bait and switch, thwarting expectations. He’s a master of the erudite, elegant, perplexing curveball. “Just a way,” he told Rosenblum, of “making an image that’s intimidating.”
Once you get over the perversity of his anachronistic skills, frozen smiles, and contorted poses, you have to marvel at the way the works ricochet off an ecumenical array of ancestors, progenitors, and peers. Dürer, Mantegna, Pontormo, Otto Dix, and a host of others make cameo appearances, as does a kneeling figure from Courbet’s Stone Breakers, Wyeth’s crippled Christina, and a bad-joke doctor worthy of Richard Prince. It may be pure coincidence, but Michael Jackson and Valie Export (who in an early performance presented her bare breasts to be touched) both popped into my mind in front of The Wizard, with its image of a groping, black-gloved sicko. Then Currin falls in love. The angelic frolicking Eves (Cranach plus Botticelli in Hallmark heaven) he painted in 1999, after marrying artist Rachel Feinstein and honeymooning in Italy, offer sublime respite. But even so, you may catch a subliminal whiff of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s macabre sculpture of hacked bodies and truncated tree limbs, based on a Goya etching, in his ecstatic painting The Pink Tree.
Besides the mannered deformations and anatomical deformities of his images, there’s also the unmentionable issue of class. Let’s not forget Hogarth and Daumier and David Levine. While everyone ponders Currin’s contrarian revival of genre painting, his work also taps into a lost tradition of social caricature. His genre scenes, which keep growing more socially adept, are not without allusions to social status and class. Thanksgiving, his most recent painting, is a timely tour de force. The whole elaborate composition is on the verge of being sucked into the gaping oval hole of the central woman’s mouth. A woman at the left attempts to spoon-feed her with an empty spoon, while on the right, a third vacant woman contemplates another black hole: the cavity of the unpalatable raw turkey that upstages the women. We’ve come a long way from Norman Rockwell, yet he and Currin share a peculiarly American social vision. It’s a disconcerting parable and parody of consumption, lack of fulfillment, and insatiability.
Partaking of the great American craving for the uncanny, the grotesquely violent, the hideously vulgar, and the sickly sweet, Currin’s art draws on our culture’s repressed hysteria, free-floating rage, and collective taste for the obnoxious. In this season of the grotesque, his vision has begun to seem remarkably prescient. His work parallels the radical conservatism that has a grip on our government, if not our national psyche. You’ve got to admire Currin’s courageous stance. Along with Lisa Yuskavage, his classmate at Yale, he went against all the sacred cows of minimalist, conceptualist, post-structuralist theory and taste. He created a confrontation with everything that inspires the art world’s fear and loathing. He may well be our premier mannerist. He’s certainly the most profound observer of the follies, foibles, and deformations of our shallow times.