Although John Currin is often accused of misogynistic tendencies due to his subject matter, he contends his presentations are intended as satirical references to society’s ever-present barrage of the elusive “ideal” fed to us through art history, media, advertising, and the glossy pages of magazines. This exploration into vanity continues to inform his work today.
By Dimitris Lempesis
Photo: Sadie Coles HQ Archive
John Currin combines classical tropes of beauty, such as the lounging Renaissance nude, with contemporary images such as those found in pop culture pinups and Internet porn. In his solo exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ, John Currin presents a group of 5 new paintings. The majority of the paintings depict a pair or couple, echoing the tradition of the marriage portrait. But incongruous elements have infiltrated each picture. As the artist says “The people I paint don’t exist. The only thing that is real is the painting. It’s not like a photograph where there’s another reality that existed at a certain moment in time in the past. The image is only happening right now and this is the only version of it. To me, that’s fascinating. It’s an eternal moment”. Early in his career, the simple fact that he was painting people was as weird (if not more weird) as anything else he might have been up to. For some time, figure painting had been a highly suspect activity. It belonged to the commercial realm, turning up in places like the covers of romance novels, where paintings of windswept Fabios and women with heaving bosoms inevitably appeared. A portrait shows a smiling woman in a transparent blouse, a baguette is furled into her hair and topped precariously by an upturned jug. Currin adopts familiar conceits of art history and turns them into an spectacle or masquerade. The headdress is a cocked hat in the vein of Judith Leyster’s or Frans Hals’s portraits of jovial Dutchmen. It is also a stack of sexual puns. It reflects and accentuates the subtler elements of the uncanny threading through the picture, as manifested by the woman’s guileless state of exposure, her swelling belly, and her misaligned gaze. The crow which perches on her knee, and the gnarled walking stick on which she rests her hands, introduce an air of Gothic playacting. In “Pistachio” (2016), a mature couple stands in an embrace, the woman holding the man to her chest while cupping the side of his breast. Her face displays a spark of pleasure that is slightly undercut by the clipping of her lip. Eyes closed, the man resembles a flushed child being coddled by its mother. It is painted with the delicacy and tonal intricacy of a Renaissance master. The couple would be eerie enough without the peripherals that Currin appends to his subject. A cone of pill-green ice-cream, the pistachio of the title, has been upended on the man’s balding pate. A snail crawls up the woman’s back, its sliminess echoed in the sticky feeling of the painting itself. Currin conceals his deep knowledge of art history and a very refined taste in representational composition. With settings that are never ordinary and often tacitly sarcastic, and a selection of topics that stylistically and graphically also recall glossy and pornographic magazines, the American artist redefined contemporary portraiture.
Info: Sadie Coles HQ, 1 Davies Street, London, Duration: 23/11/16-21/1/17, Days & Hours: Tue-Sat 11:00-18:00, www.sadiecoles.com