Wednesday, March 16, 2011

John Currin—Society Painter

I ran across the work of the painter John Currin recently in a fawning NYTimes Style piece, the central tenet of which was that his and his wife’s decision to flout the traditional artist lifestyle and live “amid the kind of ritzy indulgence their collectors do” was a act of bold independence (rather than, say, merely ritzy self-indulgence). Of course, for centuries there have been artists who hobnobbed with their patrons and affected the same genteel, affluent lifestyle—the fact that their lives and work are less known to us than those of their more ascetic, or more tormented and excessive, brethren suggests that Currin and his wife/muse/artist-in-her-own-right Rachel Feinstein are probably not destined for the history books.

Currin’s work itself (not much on display in the article—it was a Style Section piece, after all) is actually vaguely nauseating, and seems built around the standard postmodern pastiche-gimmick of shoehorning together in a single frame two radically opposing aesthetic styles, drawn from two distinct chronological eras. In Currin’s case, he adopts the lush painterly approach of a Rubens, Watteau, or Renoir, but applies it to nudes whose bodies have been distended and distorted in a manner reminiscent of German Expressionism (although at times his women, with their comically enormous breasts, recall Pop Art’s simultaneous ironization and celebration of mainstream iconography).

The result makes the viewer queasy in the same way that eating two rich but incompatible foods does. The dripping sensuality of a style like Renoir’s—kitschy as it may seem now—is still a sincere attempt at embracing beauty, at continuing the Classical agenda. The confrontational ugliness of much of German Expressionism, in contrast, aims precisely to upend the Classical tradition, to throw muck in its face out of disgust with its blinkered preoccupation with such a narrow register of existence. (As the poet Rimbaud wrote: “One evening I sat Beauty on my knees / And I found her bitter / And I reviled her.”)

Still, certain unexpected juxtapositions can be revelatory—Sid Vicious’s “My Way” may crap all over the original, but his self-destructive bravado isn’t that far from Sinatra’s, really, and he’s even willing to expose the desperate hollowness behind that bravado (something Sinatra himself is at pains to conceal).

Currin’s work, however, exposes nothing, beyond perhaps his own vacuity as an artist. To merge these two particular aesthetics goes beyond ironic juxtaposition; it does actual violence to both. The love of the physical world inherent in Rubens or Renoir receives a sucker punch from Currin’s uglification of his models, while Expressionism’s desire to shock the viewer into a recognition of the barbarity underlying culture is reduced to mere titillation. Such a stylistic merger (and the business metaphor is entirely apt here) is possible only if both styles are stripped of their motivating aesthetics and reduced to mere styles, to bloodless ciphers. No wonder his work receives such acclaim among the cadaverous socialites of New York.

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