New York

John Currin

Andrea Rosen Gallery

An intriguing survey of seventy-seven works on paper, borrowed from some fifty lenders, was handsomely installed at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, home of the artist’s early career. These drawings— let’s call them that for expediency’s sake (there were numerous watercolors and gouaches as well)—largely date from 1992 to 2002. During that ten-year run, John Currin emerged as a leading proponent of an insouciant, comedic, randy, figurative realism then being explored by a set of young provocateurs that also included Lisa Yuskavage and Ron Mueck.

By 2002, Currin had all but renounced drawing as a manual description in pencil, pen, charcoal stick, etc., upon a paper surface, in favor of a digital generation of images or, possibly, no drawing at all. The recently published picture book John Currin (Rizzoli, 2006) confirms this impression: Considerably more preparatory drawings are illustrated as reference material for the early paintings than for the post-2002 work. One wonders whether 9/11 played a role in distancing the artist from drawing. Was life suddenly too short? Was it time to put aside childish things? The event certainly could have put the kibosh on the Archie/Jughead high jinks that mark Currin’s early work.

Forty in 2002, Currin was entering midcareer, and the suddenly white and ravishing (often jubilantly pornographic) paintings of this time speak to a new seriousness of purpose and were partially executed, I assume, after photographs or media-derived imagery. But Currin also seems in some cases to have painted directly from a model. Two exquisite portraits of his son, both titled Francis, executed in 2005 and 2006 (not included in this exhibition), suggest this possibility. They also recall Rubens’s famous drawings of his son Frans; “male-gaze” Rubens—florid, libidinous, and unyieldingly straight—is, in many respects, Currin’s distant progenitor.

Vast differences in quality between drawings marked this exhibition’s rich array. (Admittedly, quality is a buzzword that lies within the purview of “connoisseurship”—perhaps finish is a better word. To be sure, many of these drawings are studies, yet there was still an unsatisfactory sense that too few “finished” drawings were on view.) Nevertheless, Currin’s repertory company of weirdly ludicrous grotesques were out in full force—from the woolly and tweedy professorial dandy (a surrogate Currin?) to a throng of the artist’s repugnant/hilarious, melon-breasted sweater girls and hyperinflated Dolly Parton types; his send-ups of “Breck Beautiful Hair” Barbies with their dotty, swoony, fanzine-cover eyes; his bony, arm-candy mannequins, who, when middle-aged, become witchy, mannered, and gaunt.

Currin shares with Cindy Sherman a gift for cruel ridicule. Is the attraction/repulsion this brings about compensation for a virtuosity about which the artist may feel some shame, so roundly blasted had he been by a vigilant community of feminists—and by now, the entire art world—alert to sexist representations of women? The problem is vexing. Certainly, artists may employ sexist stereotypes while not necessarily being sexist themselves. Such ironic usage is by now a standard deconstructive ploy that at times reveals a Puritanism lying at the heart of modern ameliorative movements.

Oddly, this was a show that was improved by excess. The sheer number of works ratcheted up Currin’s credibility: His drawing improves when one grasps the difficulties overcome; it is his dexterity that enlivens the sheet, not the comic spot or speedy visual witticism. Among the better pieces, three Hans Baldung Grien–ish gouaches—Untitled, Friends, and Three Friends, all 1998—stood out. They employ the hatching and cross-hatching techniques found in old copperplate engravings or the wood-block chiaroscuro prints typical of sixteenth-century graphics. Of course Currin’s works are not prints, but he has got the myriad parallel curves of the chiaroscuro print down pat. Equally winning was the carefully rendered drawing of a singing girl, a Christmas card–like study for Thanksgiving, 2003—Currin’s parody of Norman Rockwell, with its stupendous plucked turkey looking just like the one in Rockwell’s Freedom from Want, only unroasted, and juicier.

Robert Pincus-Witten