New York

Left to right: John Currin, The Invalids, 1997, oil on canvas, 48 x 36". John Currin, Homemade Pasta, 1999, oil on canvas, 50 x 42”.

Left to right: John Currin, The Invalids, 1997, oil on canvas, 48 x 36". John Currin, Homemade Pasta, 1999, oil on canvas, 50 x 42”.

John Currin

What is “normal” love? Mom and dad’s? Teen sweethearts? God? Your identification with certain characters from the soaps? From Art History 101? Is it the way you feel about your favorite underwear? This earlyish midcareer retrospective of paintings by John Currin provides ample material for the elaboration of these questions; authorities ranging from Saint Paul to Penthouse Letters provide some answers.

The exhibition opens with the middle-aged-woman paintings that first earned Currin a particular notoriety in the early ’90s. No discussion of these works should omit Kim Levin’s admonishment regarding their debut at Andrea Rosen Gallery to the readers of the Village Voice, “Boycott this show.” Currin poses his subjects against stark, blank backgrounds, which he has described as suggestive of Brice Marden’s monochromatic fields—late-modernist high culture or, in the artist’s words, “constipated masculinity.” The expressions and stances of the figures range from the neutral-as-weird to caricature and the grotesque, like poor Ms. Omni, 1993, a tortuously zigzagging road map of plastic surgeries and knowing attitudes. Bea Arthur Naked, 1991, remains the most sensational of these pictures, and the best. The artist depicts the star of Maude, that ’70s sitcom about an upper-middle-class do-gooder, women’s libber, and suburban wit—not Arthur’s later incarnation in The Golden Girls. Naked, Arthur nevertheless remains composed and dignified, her smile and slightly peaked eyebrows conveying a sense of irony, even amusement. The portrait is too psychological for the everyday antifeminist caricature. And Currin’s technique, stiff but more than adequate, dry but not fussy, betokens too much effort for the sake of mere snide laughter. Painted in the rapidly expanding ’90s context of well-meaning art (the kind that Maude herself might collect were she part of the scene?), Bea Arthur Naked draws together multiple threads: the “incorrect” representation of women; the campy Pop aura of television sitcoms, perhaps a hangover from the ’80s (think “Infotainment” and all those other group shows about a generation raised by the unwholesome light of the tube); and a commitment to figurative painting in the face of politicized art practices, the ever escalating fortunes of photography, and scatter and/or abject art. Perhaps Currin indulged in the last tendency somewhat, given his debased or pathetic subject matter and an impoverished or superannuated technique that savors more of the thrift-shop aesthetic than of the Old Masters.

Currin might welcome the idea that the women-in-bed paintings that followed in 1993 are allegories of the beholder after the manner of Michael Fried’s analyses. Apropos of the “girl in bed,” he has said, “She’s just a completely passive isolated watcher or spectator. . . . It’s an allegory of what you do when you look at the painting.” Subsequent Currin females become ever more pneumatic, with strong emphasis on the breasts. (“Reny Fleur,” aka Matthew Licht, celebrated Currin’s mammary madness in Juggs magazine.) Alongside this sickish thematic evolves Currin’s increasingly pronounced dabbling in the art-historical warehouse. But the eagerly approved notion that he is reviving Old Master techniques is a red herring. Yes, his technique becomes much more fluid and even flashy; the Chicago exhibition convincingly demonstrates Currin’s evolution—his improvement—as a painter. But technical finesse and art history devolve with the artist’s content rather than l’art pour l’art. Consider The Invalids, 1997, where the artist’s fascination with sick girls snuggles with “other” interests, among them lesbianism, meaty breasts, and Picasso. The awkward pose of the sapphic embrace evokes the Master, as do the heavy outlines (compare Picasso’s Woman with a Fan, 1905). Surface irregularities, in particular the crusty faces carved out with a palette knife, convey horror-movie disfigurement no less than art-historical references, e.g., Courbet.

Currin loves mismatched couples, as in his pictures of Junior Miss girls holding hands with father-figure men. The girls are saccharine but pretty; the guys are revolting, the figures of “male authority”—stuffed shirts, academic beards, college English professors dating nubile students. Again, Currin forces the “wrongness” of the subject matter, even as he combines it with a brushier, let’s-have-fun-with-paint technique. Or he “has fun with” allegory in The Wizard, 1994, a coarse picture of a shrunken, clownlike man with fat red lips, his mascara-smeared eyes closed in rapture as he palpates a young lady’s fleshy bosom. The wizard wears black gloves that presumably come from the fetish-gear shop next to the clown-outfit boutique on Currin’s pervy version of Main Street, USA. Also, there’s the ineluctable savor of late Picabia, of course, for postmodern terrible-is-marvelous revisionism.

Recently, this straight white male painter has turned to gay men as subjects, as in Homemade Pasta, 1999, his image of same-sex domesticity. Is he baiting the gays now? Compare the older guy in profile to the twink boyfriend—with his horrifying lunette smile—as they tease out the limp, spermatazoic white pasta. Had Currin confined himself to normal love, eschewing fraught sexual politics and weird physiognomic and anatomical renderings, keeping himself unsullied by perversion, his paintings would presumably be inconsequential. (This show includes perhaps one image of normal love, Currin’s portrait of his wife, Rachel Feinstein, wearing a fur and huge sunglasses—although the Jackie O shades already tip the image toward camp.) The “liberation” of painting is accomplished because of the licentiousness of content. This makes Currin’s work exemplary: Dead painting lives on because of the unhealthy—politically incorrect, historically inappropriate—passions of its practitioners. (As perversions go, what’s more extreme than necrophilia?) After all, Currin first garnered the spotlight when the tiresome “death” question was extremely present in art criticism and practice, and he seldom misses an opportunity to underscore his contentious, bravura response to that context. But nowadays, the matter is glossed over or simply ignored, suggesting that Currin’s MCA survey charts his passage from mad bad boy to epicurean of oddity, sort of a post-postmodern Balthus—a comfortable position, no doubt, but one that even now prompts the question, Is that all he really wants?

“John Currin” will be on view at the Serpentine Gallery, London, Sept. 9–Nov. 2; travels to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Nov. 20–Feb. 22, 2004.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.