Around 1998, John Currin began his rise to the top of every collector’s wish list and commenced his descent into slick, fussy, quasi–Northern Renaissance academicism. Before this, Currin’s work had come on strong, strange, and comedic, like a roomful of clowns. His art was double-edged, freakish, annoying, and endearing—the painterly equivalent of the “feel-bad” comedy of Larry David. By the late ’90s, aware perhaps that he was in danger of becoming a “period artist,” Currin used traditional ideas about painterly skill to get beyond shtick. This opened his work up to wide audiences and helped establish him as perhaps the signature American realist of today. But this skill soon devolved into shtick. Currin’s surfaces died, as did the conversation around his work, which came to revolve almost entirely around technical issues. Even he admitted, “I’m conservative,” and fretted, “Maybe I’m just an academic realist.” Currin’s work was too specific, perverse, mannered, and complex to be dismissed as only these things. But it seemed that after 1998, Currin’s inner contrarian had turned compliant.
Now Currin is on the move again, and to good effect. Everything in his current exhibition is distorted, including the show itself. Twenty paintings are hung cheek by jowl; the whole show becomes a sort of rebus; individual works play off one another in strange ways. Additionally, Currin is also distorting various styles, genres, and formats, including still life, portraiture, and especially pornography.
Currin is combining porn, mannerism, and an idea pioneered by that ultra-sexual alpha-male artist, Picasso. For me, a big part of cubism’s greatness comes from Picasso devising an extraordinarily forceful pictorial system that allowed him to portray what he wanted to see most: Breasts, vulva, eyes, stomach, anus, labia, mouth, clitoris, and buttocks all at the same time and all on one plane. Porn does something similar, only without the force or formal radicality. Porn is all convention. It has to do certain things in certain ways or it’s laughable and amateur, or not porn at all.
Curator Philippe Vergne has written that “Picasso is like math. Porn is like meth.” Similarly, discussing porn and art, sculptor Anat Elberg said, “Pornography is a caffeine rush, it’s reality tv,’ ” meaning, I think, that porn is fast and painting is slow and that the lines between what’s feigned and unfeigned in porn are blurred. This brings us to Purple Bra, Currin’s sort-of quotation of Courbet’s famous 1866 painting The Origin of the World, a graphic depiction of a naked woman’s lower torso with her legs spread. Courbet’s image is in your face. The paint is a metaphor for sex and flesh. Currin’s image, on the other hand, is fascinatingly neutral, soft, fuzzy, and romantic. This may be Currin’s point. Purple Bra, like the better Dane, a painting of a clothed woman peering at another woman’s naked crotch, and Tollbrook, an even weirder picture of a woman with her underpants around her knees as she looks down to her genitals and some still life at her feet, makes you realize that nowadays you’re often not thinking about sex in front of images of sex. Currin’s new canvases are devices that allow him to experiment with the physicality of his work and explore the natural fissure that exists within his art between radicality and conventionality, humor and creepiness, anger and affection, conviction and towering ambivalence.
Gezelling is similar to Purple Bra, but more complicated. A naked woman reads an untitled book in bed, her vulva on full display. Even though you enter the painting through the vagina, as it were, thoughts of titillation and sexism give way to the realization that this picture is not just about lasciviousness and voyeurism but about the woman having an inner life separate from your gaze. Complicating matters even more, Gezelling is composed so that you can look away from the genitals to the breasts, the face, and the blank book. Rotterdam, a scene of a man and a woman having sex, is the most hardcore image on hand. Here, Currin tries to do what porn and Picasso do: show all the body parts at once, including something that’s often missing in paintings done by heterosexual men for other heterosexual men: an erection. Currin does this with liberal touches of Penthouse, Picabia, parody, humiliation, Norman Rockwell, the piercing male gaze, and what might be called the sidelong female glance.
As blatant as Rotterdam is, however, everything in the painting is deferred and formal. This is pornography as still life and still life as catalog. The “money shot” is the pearl dangling suggestively from the girl’s lace gloves; the lace stands in for pubic hair; the pink of the undone garter belt is an outside rendition of the girl’s parted labia.
Sparks of a different sort fly from two small portraits hung side by side. On the left is Francis, a Gainsborough-meets-Keene picture of Currin’s infant son. On the right is 2070, a painting of an old man reading a book. First you think this is Currin, who would be 98 in 2070. Then you realize this figure isn’t that old and that it’s more likely Francis at the age of 70—the son Currin will probably never get to see at this ripe age. Here, Currin is not painting a mathematics of sex, but one of life, love, and loss. As always with Currin, 2070 is comedic and gamey. Still, this personal juxtaposition makes your heart finally go out to Currin, who until recently has been keeping you at arm’s length.