New York

John Currin

Andrea Rosen Gallery

John Currin seems to be cleaning up his act, at least a little: no more extravagantly chesty women, the cartooniness of some paintings balanced by a certain sedateness in others. Of course, if you found misogyny in Currin’s earlier work, you won’t be won over by, say, The Lobster (all works 2001), in which a woman’s head and shoulders extend horizontally into the frame to become the stand for a traditional still life—fish, bread, fruit, carafe, even a violin, as well as the eponymous crustacean. You may also notice that if Currin’s lubricious eye manhandles younger women rather less blatantly now, older women still have something to fear: There was actually a drawing in this show titled The Hag. Overall, though, the bad-behavior quotient of the work has dwindled. The question now is: What’s left?

One of the talking points around Currin is his supposed virtuosity as a painter. That view is far from unanimous, but let’s accept it for the sake of argument: Even so, a recursion to nineteenth-century academicism, whether in quality of finish or in the principle of emulating the old masters, would still seem a weak grace note to the adventurous and rigorous life that painting led in the twentieth century. Not that Currin’s work is strictly academic, of course, given the silliness with which it handicaps its usually female subjects. It’s just academic with quirks, and guessing where the quirks came in is easy: The painting Currin’s fondest of is irrevocably historical, but he appears to distrust the intelligence of the appropriationist stance toward the past taken by the generation before him, and he is in any case less critical than those artists were, more straightforwardly an amateur of art history. Tagging along after them, though, he has trouble embracing painting without some sort of qualification—which in his case, absent a more careful proposal, means without his tongue in his cheek. Hence his apparent elevation of Norman Rockwell to the status of the other old masters he looks at so closely. In fact the stereotypical and caricatural distortions that in Rockwell stand as the magazine illustrator’s attention and laugh—getting devices, and are relatively restrained, are sufficiently pumped up in Currin’s art as to pretty much become its content.

There were works in the show—Blue Rachel, for instance, or Rachel Reclining, or Green Dianne—that lack that caricatural element, and in fact suggest a certain tenderness. But they are also quite close to the portraits commissioned by countless patriarchs and matriarchs across the country, customers sharing an income bracket, an aesthetic conservatism, and a desire for a status-rich image of their nearest and dearest. The legions of artists who produce such portraits are usually skilled, but no one thinks them the future of painting. How funny that in Currin’s show one should turn to works of this kind with a feeling of relief.

This is because the psychosexual politics sensed elsewhere still unsettle. Misogyny is probably too heavy a term here: Currin’s images suggest a smart but callow teenager, and you kind of hope he’ll grow up. But then when he does, the work shows its underlying tameness. Many defenses of it can be mounted, and have been: Currin is unraveling art-historical tradition, or arguing with political correctness, or thinking only about painting, or fusing art history and modernity, or exploring the refractory nature of sexual desire, or whatever. Some of which may be so. To varying degrees, but it’s not clear to me why any of those things should matter more than the fundamentally reactionary quality that the work shows on several different levels.

David Frankel