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Gagosian’s annual Oscar Week opening is a big deal. The streets of Beverly Hills are jammed with the nouveau riche, who come out in droves like extras from Cockaigne—the mythical land of libertine excess—to stand among the Hollywood A-listers in attendance. Rightly so, John Currin’s opening played into the high spirit of the week: image is everything.
The 11 paintings on view, all made over the last three years, displayed Currin’s crass European impulses tempered by his distinctly American manners. Like filmmakers Wes Anderson, who attended the opening, and Woody Allen, who did not, Currin’s Europhilia is personal and nostalgic, and a bit cloying at times. Reference points run the gamut from vintage Danish sleaze to the Italian Renaissance. As much is expected from Currin’s work, yet this particular grouping of paintings revealed that his interest in surface extends beyond materiality. For Currin, the painted surface is a handsome veneer that ultimately belies his boyish obsessions.
In several of the paintings, polite classical figures are painted in the foreground to shield the explicit sexual content that lurks behind in the underpainting. Currin’s self-censorship results in tightly wound compositions and ambiguous spatial schemes.
Though this batch of work was less aggressive than what Currin may be known for, it was as decidedly vexed as ever. Currin’s female subjects are prone to sexualization even as they convey tension, mystique, and expectation. They seem weary in their roles as hostesses, showpieces, and gatekeepers, who carry the burden of centuries of controversy and codification. In such proximity to the movie industry elite, it is tempting to read Currin’s wanting females as an indictment of pictorial systems that value sexism, misogyny, and restrictive gender roles. Such a read is assuredly too hopeful. Still, it’s nice to imagine.
The subject of Chateau Meyney (2013) could be posing before the projection of a joyless 1970s porn loop—the viewer assumes the position of having shown up late to a middle-aged and upper-middle class bacchanal. Tones of attraction and imminent embarrassment abound. With an inebriated blush on her cheeks, she holds a glass of red wine unaware, or unconcerned, that her blouse has come open. She sits in a totally false, painted space. It is disorienting and confusing, while organized and considered.
Fortune Teller (2015), depicts candles burning upside down; nude female figures are suspended in the background. One has her head bent neatly and unnaturally into the bottom right corner of the picture. In the foreground, an impossibly proportioned odalisque in a turban holds a reflective ball, her placid smile offering no explanations. The composition holds together like a puzzle or a knot: by its own logic. Between the confounding use of illusionistic space and the work’s nuanced relationship with painting’s history, Currin’s depictions are far less literal than Classicism, Pornography, or a tidy mix of the two.
For Currin, among all the veils of reference and experience, any attempt to apply a layer of social critique ultimately fails. This is because his paintings are about painting. Without the shock of pornography, the paintings are hermetic. His restraint reveals that his true guilty pleasure has less do with titillation and everything to do with the painted surface and its capability for expressing the intuitive and indistinct. Per usual, Currin’s paintings resist engagement with contemporary art trends, tastes, or discourse. Image making is the primary focus, not narration. If you’re going to like it at all, you’re going to first like (or appreciate) how it’s painted. Currin’s historical literacy and Old Master skills are the product of his obsessive pursuit and investment in the traditional business of making a painting.
In Maenads (2015), a young girl in a transparent top sits before a scene of indistinct yet obvious carnality. The compact pictorial organizations and rhythms in the painting direct the viewer’s time and attention; contrasts of paint handling, perspective, and historical orientation, force the viewer into a state of submission. This involves following an artist you might not totally trust into a world rife with its own perverted terms.
Hollywood is most certainly perverted, yet it is also wonderfully tolerant, even desirous, of the pictorial and lush, the subjective and imaginative. Currin’s work addresses a paradox inherent to the red carpet and the white cube: an image is both authentic and false. It’s an interesting idea, but set against the local glitz and conspicuous avarice the work risks losing its nuance, instead embodying the conceptual starvation of gorgeous kitsch. The veil of the commercial art gallery is lifted way up. Like Marilyn Monroe’s dress in The Seven Year Itch (1955), it blows around and, as if by magic, everyone’s intentions are revealed.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 1.