February 24, 2004
Rehashing Currin, Gauging the Fuss.
Now that the curtain has dropped on the Currin show at the Whitney, and well beyond the end of its stay here in Chicago, the time is ripe for some shallow reflections. (Note: exhibition organized by the Whitney and the MCA along with Serpentine Gallery.) Here's a bit of a survey of critical response to the show, with some minimal personal sophistry towards the end.
Let's start things out via Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker:
I hazard that in Currin's art manifold pleasure disarms revulsion-without eliminating it. He demonstrates the power of the aesthetic to overrule our normal taste, morality, and intellectual convictions... Currin hooks us by rewarding capacities for knowledge and experience which most major art of the last half-century repressed. Why that long reign of austerity was a good idea is increasingly hard to remember.
Hear hear, Peter... Onward:
Currin, like two of his contemporaries, the exciting figurative painters Elizabeth Peyton and Lisa Yuskavage, dispenses with irony-the nervous signal that, of course, one is smarter than some antique or vulgar material at hand would suggest. Currin is sincere. His motive in a given work may be palpably sentimental, hostile, slaphappy, self-loathing, or otherwise miserable. It doesn't matter, as long as his artistry takes over.
Oh come now. "Sincere"? Currin is nothing if not a smart-ass. There was a time, in fact, when one might have argued that while an artist like Currin caters in cliche, kitsch and crap, it's alright: he's clearly being ironic. Now it seems that the company line is to note that, although he may be trafficking in allusion, caricature and mannered deformity, it's alright cuz he's ever so earnest. Critics these days, it would seem, are doing their damnedest to will the death of irony. (The greatest recent push against irony was undoubtedly in the aftermath of September 2001 when we hardly went a day without a eulogy from cultural commentators of every stripe; note: it didn't take. An odd digression to make a point: Berkeley Breathed on the rebirth of Opus: "The world went and got silly again. I left in 1995 with things properly, safely dull, and couldn't imagine why anyone would feel it necessary again to start behaving ridiculously. It would have been at least courteous of the Republicans to warn a few of us inclined to retire our ink-swords that they had King George waiting in his zoom-zoom jetsuit aching to start the Crusades again.") Perhaps, though, this will prove to be one of those truisms that, given sufficient critical mass, will accept a luster of fact (eg, precession of simulacra, death of the author, death of painting, death of [...]), until we sober up a decade hence.
So then... Ironic or sincere? Clever or earnest? The distinction just crumbles in the face of the baroque perversity in which Currin is drenched—a tradition which is capable of wallowing in resplendent sensual excess while simultaneously turning on itself with a knowing and incredulous smirk; sensual authenticity and mannered artificiality at once. (My admittedly cursory look at the work of Currin's wife, Rachel Feinstein, would place it in a similar context.) Which brings us to...
...as with the war in Iraq, an inversion has taken place around Currin: He's often represented as doing one thing when he's doing the exact opposite... Currin is sincere the way pornography is sincere: The line between what's feigned and unfeigned is blurred. When he's on, Currin opens a fascinatingly disquieting psycho-visual space. As with pornography, when he's off, his work turns unintentionally silly... His paintings are like clowns: comic, creepy, tacky, freakish. Think of the "feel-bad" comedy of Larry David-the discomfort, exaggeration, and misanthropic obnoxiousness. That's the dodgy place Currin's best work edges into.
We move along and take our negativity full-throttle with The Polsky Smackdown over at Artnet:
In terms of esthetics, John Currin has surprisingly received universal praise from the art world press. There has been all sorts of talk of how expertly his works are painted, coupled with a lot of psychological nonsense about the human condition.
To my eye, all we have here are intentional kitschy, thrift-store portraits of people with exaggeratedly wide eyes. Sure, they're skillfully painted, but why shouldn't they be? In this day and age, the art world considers being a good draughtsman and having a command of color and composition to be something remarkable.
... to which Artnet's Charlie Finch reacts thusly:
Currin is that rare and special brand of artist from whom each individual piece incites a special lust from each individual collector; in his generation, he is matched solely in this regard by Elizabeth Peyton... Currin is conservative in the best sense of the world [sic]: he seeks to perceive what is authentic within the purview of his bent vision, and what is authentic to Currin is the unclassifiability of desire and the conviction that all life is essentially erotic.
At New York Metro, Mark Stevens rants on about clever boys, but steps back a bit in the end:
There is one respect, however, in which Currin differs markedly from most contemporary cutups: He is genuinely interested in the actual art of painting. He clearly loves the masters, intending praise as well as parody. Not surprisingly, he is particularly attracted to a luscious surface and to virtuoso effects. He seems to reach for a compliment when, for example, he gets the pallor of turkey skin just right.
(A brief aside: note the mildly amusing juxtaposition of advertising and content that greeted me upon reading Stevens' article at New York Metro (a screenshot... the painting is Currin's The Bra Shop); also see Ariana French re: "the accidental commentary of Akamai" for something similar but far more interesting.)
Over at Slate, Mia Fineman too comes off as rather reserved in both praise and criticism. First, regarding Currin reputation as virtuoso:
Ultimately, though, the critical focus on Currin's "technical virtuosity" is a red herring; his technique is notable mainly because of lowered expectations in the most fashionable quarters of the art world.
...and ending with a take Currin's play-it-safe stratagem as well as a parting equivocation:
It's not that he doesn't take risks-he paints what he likes to paint, even if it means weathering accusations of misogyny, sexism, ageism, and homophobia. But he also injects just enough irony into his work to inoculate it against the possibility of debilitating failure... When one of Currin's paintings goes wrong, his sly humor, perversity, and bad-is-good sensibility come running to the rescue. All of which makes Currin's work easy to like, but hard to love.
If only the American art world could find a realist painter who also somehow counted as avant-garde, it would have a sure-fire, across-the-board winner on its hands. Enter John Currin, educated in the prestigious painting department at Yale, with all the right contemporary contacts, and yet still proud to champion reactionary ideas and techniques. Behold painting's Redeemer... He twists his subject matter out of true -- toward surrealism lite and caricature -- so that he can claim to be interested in more than empty craft. And that makes him close kin to a throng of other American realists, who've all heard that high art is supposed to involve a personal vision and a dollop of weirdness, even a touch of social commentary, and so make sure to throw a bit of each into the mix. It's the standard fare at third-rate commercial galleries across the country, so it seems strange to have a single purveyor of it picked out as special enough to warrant a major Whitney show.
How 'bout some older fare?
Originally published 2001—David Cohen, editor of artcritical, seems to agree with Gopnik:
What does it portend if instructors at prestigious Ivy League Schools, and not a few cognoscenti elsewhere, genuinely extol the painterly technique of so disingenous [sic] and meretricious a hack as John Currin?... the vast majority [in a 2001 solo show at Andrea Rosen] were Rockwellian romps of phoney narrative, rehashes of big busted illustration-book beauties, more Reginald Marsh than Rubens, and gaudily-framed beaux-art parades of dexterous caricature, in no wit superior to the dashed-off efforts of street portraitists at London's Leicester Square or New York's Central Park.
People expect, for instance, that an Ivy-educated SWM like Currin would only paint women out of a desire to critique stereotypes, to deconstruct the male-dominated tradition of which he is a part: maybe his paintings of young girls in high school yearbook pictures were ironic, distant, a gambit on the very impropriety of a macho guy painting vulnerable girls. But Currin followed those up with paintings of older women, then paintings of women in bed - as if deliberately leading one to ask, where else would a straight guy want to depict women than in bed? Lately, he's even started to do nudes along the lines of 1950s and 60s sexploitation pics. How much credit can you advance him as a feminist in wolf's clothes before you see what's really happening: it's the return of the repressed. Why would an Ivy-educated SWM (Straight White Male) like Currin want to paint women? Well, why wouldn't he?
Upon further review:
The 'general reaction' to this show, as far as I can tell, could hardly be more uncertain, if ambivalently positive. And yet there seems to be general agreement that the Universal Critical Opinion on it is overwhelmingly glowing; and one gets the sense that the artist's detractors all imagine themselves lone crusaders, voices of sanity and difference fighting the good fight. Granted, I haven't read Kimmelman's take (nor do I feel particularly inclined at this point to tracking it down, though the implication seems to be that it was quite positive), I haven't even glanced at the reactions in the glossies, nor can I recall if there was any substantial coverage here in Chicago—that is, beyond a one-paragraph blurb in the Reader (pause to laugh with me at the sorry state of Chicago "art coverage"). But out of those critical responses I have read—with the exceptions of Schjeldahl's review and the normally ornery Charlie Finch's response to Polsky's piledriver—I find little more than skepticism and only slight, measured praise. Whence did the apparent buzz originate? There's certainly a backlash, but is the critical consensus it strikes at real or imagined? Or is it really a buzz of the agora to which our critics react with skepticism and contempt?
Contrary to the myth of the monolithic hegemony of the Universal Critical Opinion, Currin's work in fact elicits a whirlwind of varied responses; there seems to be very little agreement as to just what the guy is up to. Schjeldahl perceives sincerity. Fineman sees irony. Saltz, pornography. Stevens, a clever-boy/virtuoso. Franklin Einspruch, cynicism. Roberta Fallon, anger. Russ Meyer, Juggs, Botticelli and Cranach. While most take great pride in numerating Currin's classical references and hold him up as a contrarian aesthete with traditionalist tendencies, many hold him to be worse than Rockwell (after all, Rockwell knew his place), and David Cohen files him squarely within the modern anti-aesthetic tradition: "Bad Painting with quality technique." Currin, it would seem, is all of this and then some; he runs the gamut and beyond, for better (Schjeldahl: "But these add up to less than the whole of the work's effect. Something is left over that calls for one of the grand old terms of aesthetics: mystery, sublimity, transcendence") or for worse ( Cohen: "His desire to have his cake and eat it, to exhibit painterly facility but all the while subscribe to fashionable anti-aesthetic postures, is not a split intention so much as one that is nauseatingly over-focused - on success"). Everyone acknowledges that he paints circles around our discourse, but to what effect? Pedestrian realism, heavy-handed satire, studied buffoonery, prurient fantasy, reactionary conservatism, cheerful candor, ostentatious mannerism, bitter cynicism, vulgar kitsch, vacuous academicism...? Sincerity or irony, earnestness or cleverness, seriousness or frivolity?
My own thoughts? Typically ambivalent. At times I see a beauty that belies the simplicity of Currin's obvious and cloying juxtapositions, but just as often I feel caught in a surface without depth. I can tell myself that I see through his ploys, and even get irritated, so long as his paintings continue to leave me cold. But all this is rendered moot once I discover those places where a surprising graciousness shines through, as in the smug domesticity of Homemade Pasta or the dynamic awkwardness of Ms. Omni or the otherworldly elegance of his Cranach-inspired Rachels who focus their wide-set eyes in the distance beyond the viewer—once I witness a presence I would not believe if I couldn't see it myself. Liking what I like here is beyond rationalization; likewise for what I dislike. The very utility of rationality goes out the window with an artist who over-rationalizes his own work in fifty different directions at once.
Anyone who strains too hard to articulate profundity from Currin is likely to wind up with something bizarre and overreaching. This is not to say that these are not works of complexity or that they don't raise serious issues, but simply that we're dealing with paintings that, through their own insistence, undermine any such serious propositions. Certainly as a relentless joker, Currin is the stuff of the Serious Art Corps' nightmares. But neither is he terribly kind to his defenders, resistant as his works are to the circumscription that is criticism's stock and trade. As Schjeldahl astutely notes, Currin "announces a situation in which artists, wielding art, trump critics who enforce ideas." Uber-discursive and incestuously recursive, this Jack of all isms offers us both too much and too little to discuss. Perhaps all that's left is to look and laugh. (And is that so bad after all?)
I very much like Fineman's formulation, "easy to like, but hard to love," to which, however, I'd add: (for myself) impossible to hate. But I leave the (next to) last word to Ariana French's "John Currin, Bea Arthur, and gigantic nipples": "Richard Polsky disses John Currin. How can you begrudge the phenomenal success of an artist who did such a magnificent portrait of a naked Bea Arthur?... on the other hand, maybe he has a point."
At the end of the day I found myself and a friend standing in front of "Bea Arthur Naked" (hung prominently at the gallery entrance), giggling like a couple of gas-huffing retards. Take it for what you will—those things are huge.
"Late to the Party"
Posted by Dan at 12:46 AM
Artblog.net: john currin
Artblog: The Europhile
Artcritical: Curryin' Favor—David Cohen
Artcritical: John Currin—John Goodrich
Artcritical: John Currin—Maureen Mullarkey
Artfacts.net: John Currin
Artnet: Art Market Guide 2003—Richard Polsky
Artnet: Defending John Currin—Charlie Finch
Artnotes: ...the accidental commentary of Akamai
Artnotes: John Currin, Bea Arthur, and gigantic nipples
Asymptote: More on the John Currin Exhibition
John Currin: Works 1989-1995
Low Culture: Painted From Mammaries
MCA: John Currin
Modern Art Notes: Dissent on Currin: finally!
New York Metro: Cleverland— Mark Stevens
New Yorker: Irresistible: John Currin at the Whitney—Peter Schjeldahl
Salon: The penguin is mightier than the sword
Slate: Critics love the painter John Currin. But why?—Mia Fineman
Supervert: Currin's Nudes
Supervert: John Currin: Boomerang
Village Voice: Reaction Shot—Jerry Saltz
Washington Post: Plan to Become An American Art Star? Oh, Be a Realist—Blake Gopnik
Whitney: John Currin