Los Angeles

John Currin

An old theory held that isolated instances of beauty might exist in nature, but always mingled with flaws of various sorts. So in order to portray an image of ideal beauty, the artist would have to collect these detached bits of perfection and combine them into a form that nature could never match. It was a sort of montage avant la lettre. The women in John Currin’s paintings are a product of a similarly concealed constructivism, although beauty doesn’t seem to be involved—abnormality, whether subtle or eye-catching, would be more the point. In the five paintings here, individual or paired figures arc depicted against a blank, usually mysteriously dark ground. Their bodies seem to combine features observed not in nature but in Mannerist painting, both Northern and Italian. (The vaguely perverse overall atmosphere is distinctly Northern, but perhaps simply because I’ve seen more Italian Mannerism, more of the details echoed Italian art to me.) But their faces are mostly ones you might have seen in last year’s hair-color ads. “Breck girls” was what people used to call the eerily bland teenagers in Currin’s paintings of a decade ago; now they’re Breck women, grown up and out of their adolescent shyness, with the bodies of Cranach’s Venus or Lucretia. The flamboyant normality of the faces is, perhaps not surprisingly, even odder than the overt artifice of the poses.

So the body is sixteenth century but the head is definitely today. That statement applies to the women depicted in Currin’s new paintings but equally describes the paintings themselves: A contemporary thought takes life in a historically dated technique. Currin’s, too, is the strategy of offering pictorial statements that can be taken as describing both what they picture and their own means of picturing it. Someone asked me if I didn’t find the paintings rather cruel. I hadn’t thought they were about inflicting freakish distortions on the female figure (those uncanny hands with their fingers flaring off in all directions at once, for instance) but were straightforwardly reporting on a world—not this one, obviously—in which these are not deformations but just things that a body can do. Now I think I misconstrued the question. Maybe it wasn’t the depiction of women my friend found heartless but something else: the torments Currin inflicts on the art of painting. He loves it for its failures—the way disparate pieces of style fail to fit, the way a jerky transition becomes an event in itself.

Currin has been tearing through the history of painting over the past ten years not by painstakingly apprenticing himself to a sequence of masters but by going straight to the heart of whatever is freakish in a given period’s unconscious notion of style. In this show we catch a shift in progress. Nude with Raised Arms, the one painting here dated 1998, is tighter and drier in execution, while in the rest, from this year, he is loosening up again (though hardly to the extent he did in the paintings of a few years back in which the style was derived, I suppose, from the French rococo). And in the best of them all, The Veil, this more painterly quality is aligned to a new naturalism, or rather “naturalism,” since here the term qualifies appearance rather than aim. Currin goes Dutch; I’ll be curious to see his take on Rembrandt.

Barry Schwabsky