I first heard of the painter John
Currin last fall when I read about him in the New York Times.
The interview was done in conjunction with his show at the Whitney
Museum last winter and used his painting Thanksgiving as the
centerpiece of the article, since it was so close to the holiday. I
read the piece right before I left school for the Thanksgiving holiday
myself. Throughout the whole weekend, I kept thinking back to the article
and specifically the Thanksgiving painting, and I could not help comparing
it to my own familys celebrations. Mostly, I could not make up
my mind whether I liked Currins work or not.
The Times profile focused mainly on his family life, a sort of exploration
of how he had come to paint such a distorted view of a sacred American
tradition, and not so much on his other work. As I thought about what
I should write for my paper, I remembered that article and how it had
left me wondering. I decided to dig deeper and discover what this John
Currin person was about. Much to my horror, I found that his paintings
were mostly of waif-ish, doe-eyed girls with gigantic breasts, usually
in some vulnerable position. As I flipped through a book of Currins
work from 1989 to 1995, I became more and more disgusted at each print.
The paintings looked more like bad girly magazine pictures than artwork.
There are no overt signs in his paintings that lead the viewer to see
his irony, instead they look like mass objectification of women. My
first impression of Currin was not favorable.
As I began to read the text in that book, I gradually discovered that
the irony of his work is not within the paintings themselves, but within
the entire work. My first look, the same as many critics, was too superficial.
Currins paintings are so blandly tasteless, that their resemblance
to average pornography is in itself the ironical statement. Currin says,
But by playing a gambit on [the theme of domination] in my
paintings, I think it sort of cancels itself out. If I make a sexist
depiction of a woman, somehow it becomes a double negative
(Paul, 40). It is the act of calling such base entertainment art
that is the irony of Currins work, he exploits and denigrates
women, doing exactly what an enlightened 21st Century male is not supposed
It is that perversity and sick sense of humor that shines through Thanksgiving
that I think attracted me. I take a great deal of pleasure from the
perverse and love to be different just for the sake of it. John Currin
seems to match my sentiments, He came onto the scene during the
heyday of political correctness as a contrarian, using the discredited
(in fashionable circles) medium of painting to make not only weirdly
arresting portraits like Mary OConnel, based
on campy and debased subjects, but also pictures of middle aged women
and of pinup models with preposterous breasts supposedly no-no
subjects for men (New York Times, Nov. 21)
Even the medium he chooses, figure painting, is something he is not
supposed to do. In Newsweek, Currin said of figure painting,
I like being somewhat different. Its fun to tweak the PC
art world, but that statement could be taken as a reference to
his entire body of work. He likes to get in under peoples skin
and challenge their perceptions of correctness.
No other painting of his represents that as well for me than Thanksgiving.
The style of the painting resembles an old master, dark background,
and pale illuminated, figures. The three women sit underneath a large
chandelier and next to a beautiful Corinthian column, seemingly placing
them in some past time, but the thawing turkey in the foreground spoils
that whole allusion. Many articles I read referenced Norman
Rockwell in relation to this painting and that comparison is
apt. Rockwell represents the ideal and Currin the actuality, even though
Rockwells painting may look more like the truth.
My family has a great appreciation for food, and consequently most
of our meals are well prepared, you will never see an undercooked bird
at our table. The rest of Currins painting, however, seems exactly
like my family. We are a large upper-middle class WASPy family that,
ostensibly, looks like Rockwell, but there are times I feel like the
figure in the middle of Thanksgiving, with this inner desire to scream
that seems to be pulling me apart. I love my family, and there is definite
affection between the women in Currins painting, but there always
seems to be something I want to say, point out the obvious errors of
my relatives ways, but I cannot since it would be nice.
Holding so much in can be difficult, so I sometimes resort to the sick
humor Currin depicts in his work. Part of my extended family has become
Born Again Christians, and their puritanical closed-mindedness usually
causes these strained situations. Usually to the chagrin of my mother,
I like to bring up everything that is deemed a taboo subject. John Currin
sees that same situation in the art world and takes jabs at their political
His most overt gesture of rebellion against prevailing attitudes are
his paintings of women with gigantic breasts and sexually-charged nudes.
In the New York Times, art critic Michael
Kimmelman says of these works, Mr. Currin seems to
enjoy the mildly creepy, fetishistic absurdity of his anachronistic
women and their subtle subterfuge. That group of paintings
from the mid 90s mostly place voluptuous (to the point of disbelief,
at times) women against empty backgrounds in vulnerable positions that
suggest their sexual submission. These paintings are so reactionary
and contrary to modern ideas, they transform to become the embodiment
of those notions they seem to dispel. In essence, they are like a Velvet
Elvis; so bad that they are actually good.
The artwork is so controversial in this regard; critics either love
or hate him. In the early 90s the Village Voice, urged its readers
to boycott his sexist show, but recent critical pieces seem to have
caught on to his humor and celebrate his context and technical skill.
That kind of divisiveness seems to be just what John Currin is attempting
with his grotesque perversity. His paintings challenge all the mores
of equality and dignity that his audience holds so dearly. His overt
attempts to contradict political correctness suggest that we might not
be as morally developed as we thought we were.
It seems that some critics cannot seem to admit that to themselves.
In an interview in Newsweek, critic Peter
Plagens attacks Currin for his choice of ridicule, The
social satire in them seems small beans to me- pinched, WASPy, and academic.
Youve got brunchy women, lecherous old profs, vain Upper East
Siders and bosomy girls- all easy targets. Plagens insinuates
that those commentaries have been done to death already, but Currins
work blatantly demonstrates that those stereotypes are alive and well
In a world full of poverty, starvation, and suffering it may seem glib
to lampoon the easy things such as the ladies who lunch, but who else
really pays much attention to contemporary art? Certainly not a bum
on the street, Currin asks why not poke fun at his audience, his customers.
His portraits of society women are like his nudes, solitary and placed
in front of a plain backdrop. The women are not usually ostentatiously
dressed, and so, away from their Park Avenue mansions, they look ordinary.
Currins paintings seem to challenge these women to realize that
they are not as special as they think they are. Again, that same sense
of perverse humor sneaks in, he seems to be biting the hand that feeds
It is that same sense of humor that attracted me to his work originally
in Thanksgiving. Ive always loved to mess with peoples heads
a little bit, but John Currin has transferred that tendency into an
art form, literally. He is a master of pointing out the absurd in our
daily lives, the adoration of womens bodies and the tension hidden
in our close relationships. Perhaps hidden underneath his layers of
irony there lurks a hard core misogynist, but it is probably safe to
assume that Currin does not seek to objectify women, only play with
our sense of appropriateness.