“Beautifully misogynistic,” his wife retorts with a caustic tone.
Through an unexpected coalescence of art-world trends and the demise of Manhattan strip joints, the Whitney Museum of American Art has become the place for men and women to get their rocks off. The retrospective of American painter John Currin, MFA ’86, running through Feb. 22, charts the development of a body of work since the late ’80s that consistently spotlights the female form. Currin’s women defy simple categorization as they are formed through hybridizations of magazine advertisements, studio models, art-historical nudes and the imagination. Rapidly moving between periods and subject matter, from rococo to the pinup, and even splicing them together within a single painting, Currin traces the lineages of beauty and eroticism from which our contemporary norms derive.
Currin makes no apologies about his admiration and appropriation of certain European styles, including those of Northern Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach and Rococo painter Giambattista Tiepolo. He has admitted that his tastes were “seen as reactionary and boring” in the art world of the late ’80s, a period that sought innovation in electronic media and sculpture. Yet Currin and certain figurative artists, including Lisa Yuskavage MFA ’86, began drawing attention for their savvy mixing of art-historical and contemporary references.
“They both have such deep art historical precedents in terms of composition and iconography of work — it has really restored a genre, [figurative painting,] that has really been difficult for painters to approach for a long time,” said Jennifer Gross, the Seymour H. Knox Jr., curator of modern and contemporary art at the Yale University Art Gallery.
The Whitney exhibit, which is Currin’s first solo museum show, displays almost 50 paintings from different passages of his career. His work from the early ’90s, for example, places confident middle-aged women against monochromatic backdrops. “Ms. Omni” (1993) stands akimbo against a gray background and betrays both sarcasm and wisdom in her subtle smirk and raised eyebrows. Currin has mentioned his interest in exploring middle-aged sexuality as one of many realms excluded from normative aesthetic culture. A painting, such as “Bea Arthur Naked” (1991), in which the Golden Girl’s wrinkled face is imposed upon a smooth, nubile body, symbolically conveys this exclusion.
The monochromatic background, which populates much of Currin’s oeuvre over the past decade-and-a-half, represents another denied voice.
“The isolation of the figures against the blank background was almost like an act of violence,” Currin has said. “[The backgrounds] are very male, and they seem to me to be about repressed male violence.”
Their flatness certainly emphasizes the women as objects — objects that, within the tradition of male figurative painters, are both created and violated by the masculine gaze.
Currin further explores gender conflicts in a series of mid-’90s paintings, which portray heterosexual couples in kitschy rococo landscapes. Each painting finds its own expression of male dominance. In “Lovers in the Country” (1993), a man holds a bloated pipe in one hand. A blonde damsel stands at his side, looking upwards with an expression of helplessness. “The Wizard” (1994) foregoes allegory and simply depicts a man clutching the bulbous breasts of a well-powdered lady, who leans her head downwards, eyes closed, in silent resignation. What problematizes the gender hierarchies of this series, however, is the androgynous rendering of the males. Though frequently bearded, Currin’s men can be found caked with blue eye shadow and even sporting earrings. These feminine accouterments, when donned by the men, force the spectator to consider the performativity of gender.
But at some point, as critics have argued, a line must be drawn. Certainly Currin is actively critiquing the often explicitly misogynistic images he paints. The gender bending of the aforementioned series is but one example. Yet providing space for critique within a painting does not remove Currin’s complicity in the rendering of the subject matter. His focus on pinup girls in the 1997 paintings “Jaunty and Moore,” “The Bra Shop” and “Dogwood,” only further strains the viewer’s tolerance. Here the breasts achieve an immeasurable volume, and the women flirt shamelessly –products of a male fantasy of lesbianism. But then Currin shows us “the artist’s hands,” rupturing the illusory surface of the work by smearing paint across the women’s faces with a palette knife. Again, the revelation of his participation in pinup critique is not enough to excuse the subject matter. In admitting that painting nudes is “too easy an equation of loving the canvas — [and] caressing and touching a naked lady,” Currin implicitly confirms the aspects of objectification present in his work.
Currin’s foray into gay subject matter, most notably 1999’s “Homemade Pasta” and 2002’s “Two Guys,” provokes the now perfunctory question of the politics of representation and whether, for example, heterosexual artists should be dealing with homosexual subject matter. Setting this question aside, for it undoubtedly leads to the type of exclusivity counter-productive to broader discourse, it would be fair to address these works in the context of Currin’s larger body. The sincerity of “Two Guys” is almost palatable if not for the unwelcome allegorization of gay sexual practices in “Homemade Pasta,” which is centered on long strands of pasta and an incredibly phallic pasta maker. It is disheartening to think that Currin’s rare moments of sincerity — which can be found most clearly in some of his early portraits — are so greatly compromised by a body of work that, on the whole, helps solidify male-generated conceptions of female beauty and sexual norms that many artists, Yuskavage included, are working so hard to erase.
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