Critics’ Picks

John Currin, Pistachio, 2016, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 x 1 1/2".

John Currin, Pistachio, 2016, oil on canvas, 50 x 40 x 1 1/2".

London

John Currin

Sadie Coles HQ | Davies Street
1 Davies Street
November 22, 2016–January 21, 2017

John Currin’s sixth solo show here sees him revisiting old territory. Five paintings each depict a woman or a couple. Two of the couples are elderly and heterosexual (Newspaper Couple and Pistachio, all works 2016); one consists of two middle-aged women taking a break while housepainting (Happy House Painters). The figures all inhabit more or less undefined beige space.

There should no longer be controversy over whether Currin can paint as well as he wants us to think he can. While his work from the 1990s occupied an uncomfortable position between self-conscious badness and an approximation of sumptuous painterliness, since about 2003 the interplay between the aesthetic and emotional registers in his work (beauty and vulgarity, empathy and cruelty) has often been very effective.

Michael Fried observed that the stylistic self-involvement of modernist painting was foreshadowed by the eighteenth-century French taste for scenes depicting figures in various states of absorption. The two elderly couples’ absorption is offset by a device Currin first employed in the late 1990s, whereby objects from traditional still-life paintings, such as candlesticks and porcelain jugs, are piled on top of the figures’ heads. The couples seem unaware of their burdens or have learned to live with them. (The upturned ice-cream cone on the gentleman blissfully ensconced in his wife’s embrace is a poignant touch.) Perhaps they speak to Currin’s feelings about premodernist European painting, a historical burden American art supposedly rejected or overcame decades ago but which Currin has happily, perversely embraced—or learned to live with.