John Currin may be the perfect artist for this administration: He’s a compassionate conservative. He calls himself a “conservative figure painter.” He’s sort of the Arnold Schwarzenegger of painting: charismatic, ballsy, and hyped. Maybe it’s a New York need for heroes, what artist Douglas Blau calls a “validation of the inevitable,” or a
need to be in on a consensus, but occasionally, like clockwork, American critics give it up for an artist—usually a white, male, German one. It’s like the critics are getting high on their own fumes. In the ’80s, there were Kiefer, Baselitz, Polke, and Richter. In 2000 everyone rolled over for Andreas Gursky. Closer to home, there were David Salle, Eric Fischl, and the lone lady, Cindy Sherman. As uppity as it sounds, whether these artists are good or not, it’s annoying to watch this type of critical tsunami form and become a thing unto itself.
Now it’s Currin’s turn. Almost all of the reviews of his current Whitney retrospective have been positive. Work previously labeled “obscene,” “phallocentric,” “terminally cynical,” and “classist,” is now hailed as “riveting,” “inexhaustible,” “earnest,” and “thrilling.” My esteemed colleague Kim Levin, who famously quipped, “Boycott this show” in 1993, recently dubbed Currin “our premier mannerist.” My eloquent friend Peter Schjeldahl wrote that it’s impossible “to resist Currin’s claim to preeminence.” I like some of Currin’s work a lot; his paintings present a complicated case to friend and foe. However, as with the war in Iraq, an inversion has taken place around Currin: He’s often represented as doing one thing when he’s doing the exact opposite.
Almost every review lauds Currin’s “phenomenal” skill. He’s compared to Botticelli, Cranach, Dürer, and Manet. Currin is a solid, skilled painter. However, his work is more optical than physical. His technique has the look of some of these artists but not the heat. Often, up close, nothing that absorbing is happening on his surfaces. Sometimes, the way he paints isn’t that different from the style of artists Currin’s admirers dislike—Odd Nerdrum, Vincent Desiderio, or sundry American Regionalists, for instance. Regardless, with Currin means are being mistaken for ends.
Currin has gotten good at underpainting and Northern Renaissance modes of depiction. Still, his black-background nudes of the last few years aren’t as complex as the work that preceded them. His earlier paintings aren’t as precious or finicky as later ones. Their dryness, opacity, and localized color involve less mimicry of Renaissance techniques and cheesy expressiveness; the characters are more ambiguous, inbred, dysfunctional, and delicate. Currin’s accomplishment is not his crackerjack craftsmanship; it’s the way he reinserted ideas about “quality” into the artistic conversation. Critics haven’t waxed this poetic about the way a turkey has been painted since the Norman Rockwell show.
Writers gush that Currin is “sincere.” Yet most artists are sincere these days. Praising sincerity is like praising beauty or truth: It sounds good but doesn’t say much. It’s also a sneaky way of saying, “Irony is dead”—and let’s hope no form of humor ever dies. In truth, Currin’s paintings are nothing if not double-edged. What distinguishes his work is not its sincerity but how twistedly and wickedly insincere it is. Currin is sincere the way pornography is sincere: The line between what’s feigned and unfeigned is blurred. When he’s on, Currin opens a fascinatingly disquieting psycho-visual space. As with pornography, when he’s off, his work turns unintentionally silly.
Currin’s supporters say he’s “influential.” In fact, a number of his painterly peers— Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig, Takashi Murakami, Luc Tuymans, Laura Owens, and Matthew Ritchie, among them—have influenced other artists more with their individual styles. This doesn’t make them better or Currin worse. It means that Currin’s style is so particular that no one else can work in it. Likewise, mi amigo Schjeldahl contends that Currin “rehabilitates fallen practices of visual storytelling” and restores to painting “its ancient functions of illustration and rhetorical persuasion.” This is a vague claim but I think the same could be said of scores of current painters. Oldsters like Peter Saul, Jim Nutt, and John Wesley have manipulated the figure for years; and younger artists like Lisa Yuskavage, Kara Walker, Karen Kilimnik, and Trenton Doyle Hancock must think they’re illustrating something. Currin is neither a storyteller nor an illustrator. His narratives are cryptic and his paintings keep you at arm’s length. He pools various painting languages to make his own, compressing and distilling ideas and attitudes in paradoxically peculiar and droll ways. His paintings are like clowns: comic, creepy, tacky, freakish. Think of the “feel-bad” comedy of Larry David—the discomfort, exaggeration, and misanthropic obnoxiousness. That’s the dodgy place Currin’s best work edges into.
Currin’s paintings can come on strong and strange. However, I was surprised at how familiar, unweird, overly jokey, and not “inexhaustible” many of the pictures at the Whitney looked. On the good side, several recent paintings suggest he’s no longer just mellowing, but ripening. My favorite things about him are the high level of specificity in his work, how he engages a wide audience, and the original way he uses photographic sources while shunning photographic space—although his backgrounds and his notion of figure-ground are quite conventional. In the end, Currin stands up to a mid-career survey but not the critical craze.