New York

John Currin, Mantis, 2020, oil on canvas, 74 × 39".

John Currin, Mantis, 2020, oil on canvas, 74 × 39".

John Currin

Many right-wingers in the United States see Donald Trump as towering, blond, and strong: a homegrown model of the Aryan ideal. In reality, he’s just a little over six feet tall, and the flaxen color of his starchy locks, at least these days, is almost certainly due to something cheap and bottled. “Make America Great Again,” a slogan that’s supposed to evoke visions of a white, postwar, and prosperous US, is corrosive propaganda, a strain of poisonous nostalgia that grows out of troubled times. Trump is a travesty of power and virility, a deep-discount Übermensch who rose from the most abysmal of expectations. He seems to me a character straight out of a John Currin painting.

Currin has always had an acidic view of canonical whiteness and Western exceptionalism. His parodic art-historical pastiches—often featuring hilarious portrayals of oblivious, grotesquely endowed women or emasculated, ugly, and overcompensating men—are potent amalgams of old-master grandeur, pornographic schlock, and WASPy self-loathing. Thwarted male desire (and its corollary, unrepentant male chauvinism) are recurrent themes. The artist charts the detumescence of the patriarchal imagination like few others: His world is a heterosexual hell, populated by homely Ice Storm–era swingers, middle-class cretins, and the terminally clueless. Currin’s people are immanently loathsome. They rightfully deserve our scorn.

“Memorial,” the artist’s solo exhibition at Gagosian, featured seven mock-Renaissance paintings of nude women—or, perhaps more accurately, “nymphos”—rendered as funerary statues, all of which were hung on the gallery’s east wall. Six of the canvases featured trompe l’oeil frames that also read as proscenium arches. These compositional elements, along with their processional installation in the space, made the works feel like niches in an old European church or booths from an antique peep show. All of Currin’s alabaster-skinned subjects, like the Sapphic Swedes in his recent pictures, were forced into contorted hard-core pantomimes: Take the enfeebled sexpots who uncomfortably menage á trois in both Limbo, 2021, and the show’s namesake, Memorial, 2020, or the haloed female saint who lifts her right leg high into the air while gently fingering herself in Caryatid, 2021. Mantis, 2020, perhaps the most striking piece here, depicts a very big-busted lady who sits before a velvety bloodred ground. She masturbates spread-eagled while plopped on top of another woman’s voluminous pale ass. Yet, despite the X-rated antics, the faces on Currin’s figures—a number of which, as in previous works by the artist, resemble that of sculptor Rachel Feinstein, his wife—appear empty, desperate, joyless. Thanatos rips Eros at almost every turn: Barely a trace of lust, passion, or fun can be located in these lifeless women, trapped for eternity in their miserable objectifying poses. Yet I didn’t feel a jot of contempt toward any of his subjects, as was reliably the case in previous shows—only pity.

The press release for this exhibition states that “Currin brings dynamic, historicized figures into contact with a distinctly modern view of sexuality and the human body.” Though one wonders who in their right mind would ever call the emotional and intellectual stuntedness on display in these images “modern.” It seems that Currin’s brand of transgression has grown into something banal, inane—what once spit hot venom now only passes gas, and weakly. The paintings here enervated more than they irritated, and the artist’s schtick makes me think of those past-their-prime male comedians who double down on their sexist jokes as the audience boos them into oblivion. Each canvas felt like a vindictive gag by an outrageously successful painter who, at fifty-nine, still can’t stop himself from placing his spouse—an accomplished sculptor he’s been with for nearly twenty-five years—into these increasingly pointless and degrading tableaux.

I’d like to believe that Currin is much smarter than his work suggests. But what does that matter when a cynical misogynistic worldview pays off—it helped get Trump into the White House, after all. Like the Donald, Currin is a straight, blond, wealthy white guy who’s perfected the art of the low blow. Maybe it’s because hatefulness, poorly disguised as satire here, offers up a pretty addictive high that clearly pays big dividends.