John Currin, Blue Nude, 1995, conte crayon and charcoal on paper, paper: 11 1/2 x 15 inches (29.2 x 38.1 cm), Frame: 18 7/8 x 22 5/8 inches, ARG# CJ1995-022
John Currin: Works on Paper - A Fifteen Year Survey of Women at Andrea Rosen Gallery
525 W 24 St.
New York, NY, 10011
June 19 through August 21, 2009
John Currin’s current exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery in Chelsea provides a thorough investigation of women on paper. It is a varied and broad glimpse into his practice beyond the glossy paintings causing such a ruckus. Despite the notoriety of his deliciously supple and assumed-to-be pirated figures, Currin’s drawings maintain his relentless drive toward experimentation and unmistakably educated technical insights. Digestible beauty ingrained in Currin’s large-scale paintings translates to his less flamboyant works on view. They reveal a more thorough understanding of process, both individually for Currin and for art in general. These images triumph by insisting that what was thought to be a chocolate M&M is in reality a triple chocolate mousse layer cake.
Each image resides amid one to eight others in designated groupings within the main gallery. It is impossible not to react to the variation among genre, media and size. Although Currin has made a name for himself thus, by entrenching audiences in tweaked academic citations of past artistic genius fused with the suggestion of obnoxious contemporary superficiality, these images establish a more openly versatile artist. He strays from color in about half of the images, utilizing ink, pencil, and charcoal even in many of the watercolor and gouache images. Currin is able to integrate his inspiration by way of his excruciating talent, but he goes on to do so in a way that is off-putting and even a little deranged at times. His images present themselves as riddles to the audience, beautiful in their disastrous creepiness and internal contradiction.
Distorted limbs, menacingly sweet faces, and an onslaught of references remain from his paintings. The arresting beauty is only supported by his understanding of genres and quest to implant them into his imagery in a way strikingly distinct from their original context. Blue Nude (1995), for example, is a dingy half-body shot of a reclined female. Topless and staring straight at the viewer, she is controlling and aggressive. Encompassed in a blue hue, hostile shading and a deviant background of darkness, the smudged lines of her body pulsate with a dismal energy. Although it resembles a blurred, cloudy photograph, the distortion of the limbs and movement that appears in her hair, the background, and even in her eyes are overwhelmingly unnerving. The image is haunting, throwing your eyes in different directions in an attempt to digest the magnitude of focal points. Experimentation, rather than perfecting a message or ideal, is an important informant for his art. The drawings exist as jigsaw puzzle pieces contributing to Currin’s progression while providing less of the outlandish, bombastic aftertaste of his paintings.
Currin has been obsessed with self-masturbatory redefinition since the onset of his figuration in the 1990’s. He is dedicated to gaining recognition and a profit outside of the abstraction-fueled contemporary scene. His images growl; they interfere with definitive movements and the assumption that these movements must exist amid a certain subject and in a specified time. Currin describes the aspects of his images as “different languages battling on one painting.” His outlandish manipulation of women, on occasion paired with men portrayed as hybrids of the tender father figure possessing misogynistic and homosexual tendencies, shows his commitment to reinterpretation.
The imagery of women is rekindled through his recombinants. He takes the artistic subject as such and blurs, contradicts, and renews its initial objective in the past while re-rooting it in the present. The women, oftentimes floating in a void of empty space, are left to their own devices without an environmental gauge for their sentiments or appearance. Ranging from topless mothers erotically breast-feeding to hobos and large-breasted women of leisure, Currin presents a wide variety of females, young and old. There is a refreshing detachment from the subject, enabling Currin to progress without becoming concerned about whether his image is fully conducive to social norms or current political quandaries. The Hampered Model (1998), a fluid ink drawing of an empowered and delicately naked female, is an example as such. It isn’t meant to elaborate upon the injustices of women in the workplace or tell the tale of a lost love in Paris. In this image, as in a large majority of the others, Currin’s exploration of his own technical limits strike like a poisonous talon and are unavoidably entrancing. The title further emphasizes his removal from anything but what he sees his subject to be superficially.
John Currin, The Hampered Model, 1998, ink and watercolor on paper
Paper: 11 5/8 x 7 3/4 inches (29.5 x 19.7 cm), Frame: 17 x 13 inches, ARG# CJ1998-015
It can be tempting to scrutinize and eventually write off a Currin image, starving for a deeper meaning amid the promise of objective beauty. He stealthily forces the viewer in that direction by choosing to accentuate the mammoth breasts and inviting eyes of his damsels. The eyes are usually glassy, virginally righteous blue or brown peepers staring at the viewer, arousing seduction and sympathy simultaneously. Some drawings consist of closed or down-turned eyes. In having his subject connect with the audience through such deliberate renderings of ‘the windows to the soul,’ he spawns a personality and makes you think he actually gives a shit. The eyes are sterilized in their uniformity and lose their emotional draw through his standardization of expression. Concern for his subject is furthermore contradicted and even mocked in his portrayal of their gargantuan tits, which appears in a large majority of the images. The orbs float buoyantly in space and objectify his over-sexualized Barbie dolls. Herein lays the visual contradiction responsible for the distaste of so many Currin cynics. Women serve as a heavy societal symbol depending on their depiction and perceptible motives. Combining the sultry bodily representation with the responsible, endearing face provides an uncomfortable hybrid that encompasses ‘woman’ in varying degrees. Instead of serving as an exaltation or degradation of women, it thus becomes a neutralized subject that confuses upon further analysis of it. They become immediate focal points, elevating their importance with detail or playful dots, while suspending their importance in the grand scheme. Currin’s main objective lies in becoming a better painter and catalyzing artistic evolution. He has a defiant disregard for the nature of his subject, thus, and whatever connotations may follow with the manner in which he portrays them. He concentrates on how the canvas looks rather than what it is trying to say.
Does anyone else think it’s comical that figuration is causing such controversy? Contemporary art appears to have an automatic relation to internal feelings, varying degrees of conscious or unconscious realities, and commentary on humanity. The tendency toward obscurity elaborates upon the individualistic nature of our society in which we’ve become more and more focused on personal feelings and concerns. Vast parameters have thus given artists leeway in the realization and reception of their work. Currin’s return to technical partiality, however, shocks and appalls.
In the Middle Ages and even up until the last century, paintings were predominantly commissioned by the wealthy. This meant less artistic freedom, explicit instructions, and definitively academic technique. Although anyone versed in art history could pick out several potent influences in each of Currin’s drawing, what is so intriguing about each image is Currin’s recombination. Yes, the inspiration for his image may have existed 700 years ago. Yes, John Currin is a really swell painter. And yes, taking only these two aspects into consideration is playing into Currin’s joke on the superficial spectator. His crosshatching series of three gouache images, entitled Three Friends (1998), Friends (1998), and Untitled (1998), encompasses an understanding of genre combined with skill. Untitled, the first in the series, is comprised of two voluptuous classical ladies in defiant contortion, haloed by an ominous impressionistic blue cloud. Friends utilizes the same two ladies, but they are drawn in white, reminiscent of the marble figures of Raphael or Donatello. Three Friends includes a third figure sprawled on the ground, clutched by the hand by one of the original two women. A subtle wash floats behind the standing beauties, hinting at a skyline but refusing to draw that picture for you. In this series, Currin elucidates his train of thought and promising options of portrayal. Despite the references, he accentuates the suspicious co-dependence of the two women throughout the series and the consistent coo of their piercing eyes and pursed lips.
John Currin, Untitled, 1998, gouache on paper
Paper: 12 x 8 3/16 inches (30.5 x 20.8 cm), Frame: 18 x 14 inches (45.7 x 35.6 cm), ARG# CJ1998-026
Currin satisfies the role of the infamously selfish artist, opting for prominence rather than the glory of squalor, and it serves him well. I can commend him for refusing to provide me with any detail I couldn’t find on my own. If you care to look at his images for even one minute, one could rarely disagree that they are “beautiful.” The images in this show, serving as works in themselves as well as trial runs and doodles, procure an unmistakable insight and experimentation that should overpower the viewer’s potentially obscured assumptions. We’ve come to feel entitled to a narrative, to emotion or protest, that should emanate immediately from imagery. Currin provides no clues, however, to the meaning of his images. The titles, oftentimes Untitled, refuse to spoon-feed metaphors. The images themselves encompass a neutralized space, free of prevalent soapboxes, in which it is the viewer’s challenge to amass personal value beyond the markings.
Searching for such definitive categorization may be where many get caught up looking at Currin’s images. In returning to figuration so blatantly, constant reference to his influences has served to demean his work. Glenn O’Brien, in an interview with Currin, stated that “[a]rt is evolutionary in that it responds to the times but it doesn’t improve.” Currin is openly reassessing his inspiration and implementing it into the present, taking it out of its original context and attempting to reinvigorate his notions in a modern way. Untitled (1997), for example, is an ink drawing of two seated women that could resemble an anime cartoon for one viewer or an 18th century woodcut for another. In recognizing Currin’s interpretation of his pictorial influences he is enforcing an active viewing experience propelling one to agree, disagree, and visualize.
Figuration will not die regardless of how rehashed it may be. Currin promises fluid reception for those looking for a pretty picture and drowns those willing to spend the time with it. We find the same phenomenon with many varieties of art, whether it is Rothko’s No. 10 (1950), Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), or a Currin. However, in spite of the bias against Currin, I can appreciate his wholehearted pursuit of his instinctual desire to shuffle his inspiration and transcribe it into the present. As controversial as some of his imagery may be, his drawings reveal an irksome attempt to take the female out of contextual stereotype as it is related to style, good or bad. Whether it is the damsel in distress, the hospital nurse, the lover, or the whore, each image submits to the technique he deems appropriate rather than surrendering to the past traditions he pulls from. His work functions beyond subject and narrative, exposing his dynamic purely artistic choices. Is this a return to legitimate ‘art for art’s sake’ as opposed to images that claim to be born out of subconscious need that in actuality bitch and complain about the media or government? Art is absolutely the place for social commentary but just because an image has a message doesn’t mean we should be any less discriminating. Figuration is easier to criticize because it’s been done before. Currin is doing us a service by revealing an interpretive angle of figuration based on the instinctual innovation of abstraction. Who ever said you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks was wildly mistaken.
Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance writer and aspiring curator/collector residing in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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PHOTO CREDIT: Benjamin Norman (www.benjaminnorman.com)