New York

John Currin

Andrea Rosen Gallery

John Currin’s work makes Lucian Freud’s “penetrating” portraits seem wretchedly old-fashioned, pedantic. Is Currin out to rescue the arguably lapsed genre of portraiture from an imminent fade-out? Or is the model of portraiture paraded before us like some stale cliché, inviting the kind of wholesale derision that may lead to the implosion of a historical convention? He may want it both ways. Admittedly, it has always been unclear whether Currin’s earlier pictures of girls or young women make reference to “actual” people in the world, or are fanciful composites that speak more about their author’s tastes, desires, and projections. How can we begin to come to terms with the death-glazed expressions—the seemingly taxidermied eyes—of those anonymous females that were only allowed incomplete resurrection as portraits based on images from discarded school yearbooks?

Maybe Currin is like a wannabe hobbyist painter chronically afflicted with talent: try as he might, he will never be able to truly unlearn the skills that pay the bills. Or, perhaps it is the other way around: as he reaches a weirdly inspired kind of formal competence, Currin inadvertently delivers a poetics of the image that flirts with abjection. Whatever the case, he makes the sheerly banal depiction of the human condition or character seem interesting via a blank irony stretched to the limits of scrutability.

Currin’s paintings suggest a passage from significance to irrelevance that does not promise a return passage to significance—this is their anxiety. It seems reasonable to assume that his paintings have, at the very least, the semblance of a commentary or narrative on problems of gender and sexuality—possibly even on the authorial role of the male painter in relation to a feminine subjectivity. Perhaps Currin has been using the codes of a marginal, nearly vanquished representational language to engender a transsexual conversion of selfhood and identity. Or is the work just so fetchingly mediocre that we can’t help but graft onto it our fantasies of interpretation?

Alas, this weirder-than-ever batch of new paintings will probably not offer any direct answers to such queries. Refreshingly, Currin has abdicated responsibility for complying with the imagined protocols of either the putative vanguard or the rearguard, supposing that they had already leaked their secrets to each other, and that now there was very little at stake in preserving even the symbolic difference between the two. These works are all about the affecting of effects, and Currin has become increasingly apt at producing psychologically disturbing images. The “girl in bed” series features womanlike girls lying in bed, covers pulled up to the neck, heads propped up by pillows, their subtly oversized eyes often gazing out to the left of the picture frame. Uniformly blond, these “personages” dwell in their own sickly environment of anemic greens, browns, or lavenders, their blank expressions suggesting a beatific catatonia.

Are Currin’s girl-women helplessly resigned to their symbolic objectification and/or victimization? Perhaps, but as if to complicate the issue Currin has created what could be construed as a symbolic proxy for himself: an archetypal bearded gentleman—something of a middle-class fop—who undergoes subtle, yet significant modifications from one painting to the next. In The Shaving Man, 1993, the canvas becomes a mirror for bathroom-style narcissism, the character’s lather-laden face betraying a bit of remorse as he proceeds, rather daintily, to cut off his virile growth. Set against a backdrop of silly cloud formations (read: impoverished nature trope), Lovers in the Country, 1993, Lovers, 1993, and The Owens, 1994, depict these various gentleman accompanied by their buxom-blond significant others, and it is with these wacky icons of interpersonal devotion that Currin stages a deadpan comedy of manners in which noxious kitsch romanticism has bought out the competition to become the final “truth.”

Joshua Decter