"The Paintings of John Currin"

biglady1993.jpg Big Lady (1993)

The Whitney Museum of American Art Madison Avenue at 75th Street November 20, 2003 thru February 22, 2004

Review by Tom Savage

I've had so many notions/opinions of this artist's work handed me before seeing it, en masse for the first time, at the Whitney that looking at it with some objective distance has involved an effort of intense self-mind-control. Some of these are my own preconceived (?) notions based upon seeing samples of his work in two Whitney Biennials. The work I saw there seemed retrograde and uninteresting -- just imitations of Renaissance and Baroque art imagery with just enough current elements to make these paintings seem more than just reproductions or outright ripoffs. Well-executed but so are many heist movies, another boring genre currently visible everywhere for no conceivable reason other than the economic difficulties many Americans now find themselves in after a long recession now punctuated by the so-called "jobless recovery". Within less than an hour of receiving this assignment to review Currin, I found myself engaged in an argument about his work with another young artist who was then showing his work in an annual show of Lincoln Center employees' art in the gallery that occupies the basement of Avery Fisher Hall. This encounter and Peter Schjeldahl's review of the current Currin show in the New Yorker reminded me that there are knowledgeable experts who think highly of Currin's art, although Schjeldahl's review ends, tellingly, with the words: "If his paintings are to be effectively countered, it must be by other, newer, better paintings." This leaves open the possibility, even from one of Currin's champions, that something better might come along.

Surprisingly, the first two things you see upon alighting from the elevator into the current Whitney show are two well-executed, realistic portraits, one of Mary O'Connel (1989), a young woman in her teens or twenties; the second is "Skinny Woman" (1992) of what looks to be a gray-haired dancer or one of those women who starve themselves in order to stay thin. Well-executed in a 19th Century, pre-photography sense, a la Courbet or Ingres, possibly, but not quite up to those masters, of course. Next, there is "Bottom" (1991) of a woman's naked ass, legs (cut off above the knee level) and lower back. Okay, I think this bit of anatomy has been painted like this before but I can't think of who rendered it thus. It reminds one of sculpture, although it's a painting in Caucasian fleshtones surrounded inexplicably by brown covering the rest of the canvass. "Big Lady" (1993) looks somewhat like Lillian Hellman in her early later years. Her breasts, clothed this time) form a large bust that looks like some sort of cliff or something. A relatively formal portrait follows called "The Moved Over Lady", a normal, middle aged woman in a brown shirt or raincoat. Her head tilted slightly, she looks happy. She occupies the left side of the canvass, thus, the "moved over" of the title, perhaps. Then there is "Ms. Omni", another thin, this time bossy-looking sixties-ish woman, perhaps a fashion designer or an ad agency crow. This first room of Currin ends with "Bea Arthur Naked" to the waist, that is. Painted in 1991, it is honest without being offensive. Having recently seen the film "Calendar Girls" about a group of middle aged women who pose naked for a calendar in order to raise money for an English hospital, I see Ms. Arthur could have had a part in that film, although not the lead role played by the great stage actress Helen Mirren, whom I once saw out act Sir Ian McKellen in a just-post 9/11 performance of Strindbergh's "Dance of Death". Anyway, this digression is important and relevant to the art on view because both the film and some of the paintings in Currin's show speak to the fact that we don't know how to look at a naked or "nude" middle aged to elderly woman. Outside the gay world, nude men of that age are somewhat more accepted as subjects of portraiture.

A painting with the pretentious title "The Neverending Story" ends quickly enough. It's either Abe Lincoln, Uncle Sam, or one of the Smith's Brothers with a young woman scantily clad who has an arm around the man's shoulder. In "Happy Lovers" we get a young, tall, bearded man and a shorter, unbearded lady, both fully clothed. She's smiling; he looks tense. Who knows why? There are two nearby paintings both called "Girl In Bed." The second one of these looks remotely like Marlene Dietrich in her late middle years, a sheet or blanket covers all but her head and a pillow. Oh, well. There's a sick one called " The Wizard" (1994) in which a fully clothed young man, eyes closed, made up a bit like a clown, with lipsticked lips and some weird black and yellow stuff on his eyebrows and eyelids. He has both hands on the large breasts of a naked young woman. All eyes are closed except ours (the viewers). Is this a tribute or a joke? If I owned this picture, I'd tire of it quickly. Calling auction, auction; white slavery for sale.

One nice painting is imply called "The Old Guy". It's of a gray bearded man, fully clothed, with a pink towel in his hand possibly in a washroom. It's a truly good, interesting painting and neither sexually suspect nor a complete rip off of any other artist with whom I am familiar. In "The Dressmaker", however, we're back to Currin's obsession with young, scantily-clad or naked women, this one in a bikini, holding a tape measure around a headless mannikin. A flower stands in for the mannikin's head. We never knew before that Surrealism could be sentimentalized, but here it is. If this painting is trying to make a point, the next time I meet a dressmaker who actually looks like the young Sandra Dee, I'll ask her what it is. The wall-note to "Anne Charlotte" invokes the name Botticelli to explain this painting's classical look. Could be, though this is no Venus rising from anywhere. The feeling is French. The girl has brown hair. Would the Fifties or early Sixties Leslie Caron ever have been caught undressing for Mr. Currin? He wasn't even born then, yet, I don't think.

Next, we get a sexy, young woman in a ball gown holding a cane. The title of this work "The Cripple" makes it so offensive to me I don't even want to look at it, being a disabled person myself. If Currin's point is to allow yourself to have sex with your favorite disabled person, it still looks sick the way the girl seems to be trying to look like Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lopez. He certainly must know that for her, sexual discrimination is likely to take more than a bite into her cane.

After the weird nod or curious parody of disability, we encounter a perfectly lovely,innocent, well-painted (as close to Ingres or Vermeer as Currin is likely to ever get) girl wears a gown with a heart-shaped hole in her dress -- or, more properly, the cliche heart shape of Valentine's Day cards. This painting's title, "Heartless" describes the painter perhaps but not his subject, as far as we can tell.

There follow several paintings of women with what appear to be painfully enlarged breasts and disintegrating faces. Syphilis, perhaps? I'm reminded slightly of a great Durer Christ in the Metropolitan Museum with a disintegrating face. However, this parallel must be coincidental. Still, since Currin is such a derivative painter, in so many instances, one finds oneself constantly looking for precedents. There is also an obnoxious painting here called "The Dream of the Doctor" with a doctor (face hidden), his patient invisible behind a screen that looks like a Catholic confession box. All we see is a large, discarded bra hanging over the wall of the screen behind which someone presumably sits. This looks like an adolescent's wet dream to me. Since my favorite doctors happen to be gay men, it certainly isn't their dream or any real doctor's day dream, I suspect, while on the job. There is something about real doctors' physical examinations which tend to make attraction and/or arousal extremely unlikely, a cold, objectivity perhaps necessary to diagnose any real physical problem. Perhaps this was one sick little fantasy that could have remained in Currin's mind, where it obviously belongs. I move on.

In "Sno-bo" (1999) a woman with an enlarged belly stands nearly naked in some falling snow. This is an allusion to St. Christopher, according to the wall note. Even the Catholics have discarded St. Christopher, once the patron saint of travelers. Is his penalty for becoming a nonexistent, phony saint to be depicted as a female here?

Next, we reach a room of Currin's Renaissance rip-offs I hated when I saw them by themselves at the Biennials. They're always women, always nude, and always retrograde. If Currin's work here represents a painterly neoclassicism parallel to classical music's neoclassicism from between the two World Wars, I still have to ask why? Since, unlike Stravinsky, Currin preceded these with no great leap forward, why need he backtrack? He's more like Jean Francaix (a competent, reactionary composer who wrote much beautiful music which sounded as if the twentieth century had never happened) than even a Frank Martin ( a wonderful Swiss composer who wrote neoclassical works possibly as great as Stravinsky's). Once past this room of pseudo-plagiarized rubbish, things get better or at least more interesting.

In "Minerva" and "Two Guys" we get ordinary-looking people with neither obvious deformity nor enlarged body parts. Currin's Minerva is a clothed woman with bad teeth. The "Two Guys" are what may be a moustached midget paired with a much larger, younger man. I was so glad to finally see some men in Currin's sick little world (well-[painted but, in his own way as unreal as that awful, dishonest, overrated painter of magazine covers Norman Rockwell, who has been rehabilitated or habilitated by museum shows, recently.)

In "Buffet" (1999), we have the only sloppily painted image so far. It's that of a Howd Doody lookalike man in back of a fully fleshed out man, both clothed. If Currin hates men, he could eliminate them completely from his little world. But then, of course, there would be no room left for him in it, either.

In the last room, there is (finally) one beautiful painting of two gloriously beautiful naked men (no frontal views, alas), their butts sticking out of a small boat. If Currin has a perfect or near-perfect painting, this is it. It's called "Fishermen 2002". Almost pornographic in the best sense, it's a truly marvelous painting, reveling in young, male beauty. It would make a perfect adornment in any gay, male bedroom anywhere. One man's hand holds a rope. The other's head is just under a fish net that also looks like a spider's web. This painting deserves to be reproduced. If Michelangelo, Gericault, or Delacroix could have let it (almost) all hang out, this might have been what it would have looked like. I'm glad Currin has one truly inspiring work -- inspiring all of us to enjoy our bodies as well as old art. If not, why go to shows like this, at all? There's also a flying, white bird and some unhappy looking caught fish in the boat. But this painting, at first look, suggests that if Currin can get beyond his obsession with naked women with distorted body parts, he might have an interesting future. That's a big if, I'm afraid.


Fishermen (2002)

There is also a funny picture called "The Producer" (2002) of a young man in a fancy blue coat. Abandon women, Mr. Currin. They're probably as tired of you as I am of looking at your fantasies about them. Men are your new frontier. Pursue it. It's not as if you have to go to Mars in order to find them. I even forgot "The Raft of the Medusa", which looks a bit like your beautiful painting of fishermen while looking at the work. It may or may not be a comment on that painting. But who cares?

When I looked at "The Fishermen" closely and sometime later at reproductions of it, I did notice several flaws in this work, alas. Wouldn't these beautiful boys hurt their buns on the hard wood structures of this boat? Also, why is one preparing to throw a rope for some structure on an unseen dock or pier while the other is casting his net into the sea? Does the right body never know or understand what the left body is doing even though they stand in very close view of each other? Is this finally some sad agreement to between them to look but not to touch? Also, the bird, probably a seagull, is a cliche. No wonder the caught fish look so sad as well as caught. Lastly, these two beautiful young men find themselves in a very small boat. Is the man on the right crushing the genitalia or legs of the boy on the left? Also, their proportions, although stunning, are off. The boat is so small, there's no room for their legs and feet in it. Still, it's your best work by far, Mr. Currin, in that it conveys a sense of energy and true joy otherwise lacking from these realistic paintings.

Is it necessary to look backwards in order to paint realistic paintings? I don't think so. I can think of two fine artists who've devoted their whole careers to realistic painting in a contemporary context and whose works are better than those on view in this show. They are Yvonne Jacquette and Rackstraw Downes. Jacquette paints things from aerial views and in odd angles. Downes finds scenes to paint heretofore not covered by realistic painting. Thus they innovate and paint perfect pictures as well without having to refer to some museum-preserved past, as does Mr. Currin. Nevertheless, no one can deny that Currin's paintings are well-painted. Their sum total seems to be a narcissistic, self-involved dead end. But I could be wrong.