Whitney Museum of American Art
Considering the amount of discussion and hype caused by John Currin’s mid-career retrospective at the Whitney, it seems that the all too often recited "painting is dead" phrase is not only reduced to an expression of 1990s angst-history, but even replaced with a jovial "Realism is back!" Not unlike the previous two centuries, our post-turn-of-the-century society generally expresses a craving for romanticism and nostalgia. Through all art forms and their media coverage, the demand for the return of the familiar can be traced. From films based on fantasy sagas or packed as period pieces, to constant fashion revivals that have already chewed up the ’80s, or this fall’s excessive auction result for Richard Prince’s image of America’s famed "Marlborough Man," the list is endless.
Given this trend, John Currin’s success seems less of a surprise. Born in 1962, he received his M.F.A. from Yale in 1986. After entering New York’s artworld in the late eighties, a time when, as he says, "it was very easy to exploit people’s inhibitions about painting [and] to parody the will to be progressive," Currin soon aimed to "make difficult art that would be difficult for the people who thought they had a leg up on painting." Though originally meant as sheer provocation, his grotesque style of depicting women, men, homosexual and straight couples, seems to fit in perfectly into today’s mindset. Here, the questions "What is art there for?" and "What do we want from it?" come into play. Reminiscent of 1950s illustrations, inspired by 1970s Cosmo models, drawn from cliched images featured in stock photography books, Currin’s paintings succeed in pointing out the ordinary while giving it a distorted twist.
Brought to life as a collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Serpentine Gallery, London, the exhibition is curated by Staci Boris, an associate curator at the MCA, and Rochelle Steiner, chief curator at the Serpentine. Having arranged the approximately forty paintings in chronological order, the retrospective allows the audience to follow Currin’s artistic as well as thematic development. Starting the survey with portraits of middle-aged female divorcees, the exhibition unfolds rather chastely. In "Ms. Omni" (1993) a skinny woman in her late fifties is shown against a plain, light gray background. Except for her black-red lips, her skin seems bloodless and her facial contours are unflatteringly chiseled out by deep shadows underneath her eyes. With her masculine hands (for which Currin used his own as a model) on her hips, she looks challengingly over her right shoulder with a proud arrogance and grace that almost matches John Singer Sargent’s "Madame X." Having stressed the fact that his characters are not inspired by real people, but are rather reflections of himself, Currin portrays his subject matter through the eyes of a keen, yet remote observer. Simultaneously intrigued and repulsed, his approach equals one of a scientist, who has discovered a "strange" species: an aging, post-menopausal woman, who while standing at a new chapter in her life, still radiates with self-sufficiency and magnetism.
In "Girl in Bed" (1993) the concept of the figure weighed down by external circumstances becomes more literal. Set against a light green background, a woman is shown in bed, her head resting on a sterile white pillow. Covered up to her chin by a cream colored blanket, she is in a state of complete immobility and passiveness. She gazes into the void, her eyes filled with a mixture of resignation, boredom, and restlessness. By contrasting the woman’s head against the large simplified planes of her surroundings, Currin not only enforces her absolute isolation, but further denies her enough physical presence to generate any emotional reaction. Looking at the woman one hardly questions who she is, why she is in this particular position or if anything could happen to her in this vulnerable state: too little is revealed and too little mystery kept to spark our imagination. By providing all the information on what to see and how to grasp it on a surface level, "Girl in Bed" translates as an allegory of looking and being looked at. Continuing the walk through the exhibition, one quickly realizes that this premise of "what you see is what you get" is the principal characteristic of Currin’s oeuvre. A lack of deeper meaning and more traditional sensuality is most clearly manifested in the widely discussed paintings of lavishly curved, pin-up inspired girls.
In "The Bra Shop" (1997) two women are shown measuring their perversely exaggerated breast sizes. Wearing tight sweaters and short skirts that accentuate every curve imaginable, they seem more undressed than Currin’s portraits of actual nudes. Set against a vibrant orange background, they are completely engaged in their activity, concentrating on what the viewer’s eyes are drawn to as well: their enormous breasts. From there, the attention goes straight to the unusually rendered faces, which in contrast to the otherwise smoothly painted surface, seem to have fallen out of a James Ensor canvas and are constructed out of thick color patches applied with a palette knife. The women’s heavy, ’70s inspired make-up has an almost sculptural presence, amplifying its role as an artificial yet protective mask. When referring to fashion magazines as inspirational sources for his work, Currin stated that "Magazines give me the feeling that women must be like small animals in the forest, living with tremendous anxiety and fear." Though the destructive influence of media-promoted beauty ideals on women of all age groups has been a hot topic for years, the strength of Currin’s take on it lies in his ambivalence. Holding his cards close to the chest, while pushing established conceptions of beauty beyond the aesthetic limits, he confronts the viewer with both fetishes and social criticism.
The idea of lifting broader media clichés into a new reality that mockingly reflects our own becomes more sophisticated in Currin’s later and most successful works. Inspired by stock photographs used for magazine and newspaper articles, as well as commercial campaigns, works such as "Stamford After Brunch" (2000) and "Gardeners" (2001) entice through their banal subject matter. While the first portrays three girls sitting on a couch, smoking cigars and sipping martinis in their Connecticut home, the latter captures an elderly couple in their front yard. As staged scenes from suburban upper-middle class life, both works appear as painted snapshots of a reality promoted daily by fashion and home improvement magazines. Although the scenes depicted feel familiar, Currin’s choice of combining a rather unattractive palette with heightened illustrative mark making helps to abstract the content. Walking by with an uncomfortable chuckle, one wonders how much of oneself is reflected in these caricatures.