Allison Dickert - John Currin Review


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 family’s celebrations. Mostly, I could not make up my mind whether I liked Currin’s 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 Currin’s 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. Currin’s 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 Currin’s work, he exploits and denigrates women, doing exactly what an enlightened 21st Century male is not supposed to do.

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 O’Connel,” 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. It’s 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 people’s 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 Rockwell’s 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 Currin’s 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 Currin’s 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 correctness.

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. You’ve 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 Currin’s work blatantly demonstrates that those stereotypes are alive and well today.

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. Currin’s 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 him.

It is that same sense of humor that attracted me to his work originally in Thanksgiving. I’ve always loved to mess with people’s 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 women’s 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.

Danto, Arthur C. “Good Boy, Bad Manners.” The Nation. 2 Feb 04, 278.4, p 29. Infotrac.
Kimmelman, Michael. “ART REVIEW: With Barbed Wit Aforethought.” The New York Times. 21 Nov 03, E2. LexisNexis Academic.
Paul, Frederic and Keith Seward. John Currin. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1995.
Plagens, Peter. “Brilliance or Bust.” Newsweek. 22 DEC 2003. Infotrac.

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