John Haber
in New York City

John Currin

John Currin makes a good case study in the arc of a career. It begins with a small stirring, but among prominent critics. Soon it escalates to superlatives and name-calling. It first reaches a broader public in a Whitney Biennial. In less than two years it lands him in museums in Chicago, London, and New York.

Currin's full-scale retrospective does more than offer up a half-decent show of skill and some more or less innocuous female nudes. It also provides insight into the politics of desire in art. The conundrum anticipates Currin's increasingly desperate measures two years later. John Currin's Stamford After Brunch (Andrea Rosen Gallery, photo by Fred Scruton, 2000)

Midcareer crisis

Well before his retrospective, The Times got to spot a major artist, while others denounced the exploitation of women. Now, supporters draw careful conclusions from the work's ambiguity. Even Kim Levin, who once called for a boycott, supplies cautious praise. As she explains in the Village Voice, she liked the poor fellow all along. She meant only that Currin had not lived up to his promise.

I have to say this for Currin: who else can get people choosing sides over living American art? Sure, Robert Mapplethorpe and the Britpack earned headlines, and it cost the Mapplethorpe retrospective a home. Still, for both the shouting came from the Capitol rotunda and City Hall. Real museum-goers lined up in newfound respect—or at least weary detachment. Besides, the photographer was safely dead, and "Sensation" got to Brooklyn from England, which is almost the same thing, right?

As late as Frank Stella, a young painter's solo show meant a curator's taking a gamble on the future. Now, the fashionable "midcareer retrospective" gives the curator a double safety net. On the one hand, the echo of "career retrospective" allows the artist a span of years and entry into the pantheon. On the other hand, "midcareer" allows for uncertainty. Who can know what will happen next?

Even the praise includes a little too much maneuvering room for my taste. The ridiculously oversized breasts and recycled Playboy poses, you see, make for a scathing criticism of male desire. However, they do it not by rescuing the yielding female from tradition, so often the aim of feminist art, but by making the cliché inescapable. At the same time, showing elderly women as bare-breasted objects of desire gives them newfound poignancy and respect. The rebelliousness and obvious parody seem to vanish when it suits the observer.

Currin's brash, retro innocence comes with just as many outs. With his pastiches of Lucas Cranach and others, Currin sees himself as the last serious painter. In interviews, he sounds like a Neo-Con holding out against the loss of standards and values. At the same time, borrowings from calendar art question the whole idea of American realism and American tradition. So, one hears, do the anatomical distortions and roughly painted faces. Passages like these boast of their lack of skill.

Now, of course, anything can be art. The very fact has lost its shock value. But can anything be feminist art? No doubt Currin's retrospective has merit just by raising the question. But is there more?

The ego and the women

Contradictions alone may not mean anything. Art depends on them. It lives in human responses, even as interpretation necessarily opens up new gaps in understanding. Those gaps, in turn, spin into new perceptions. When people call art irreducible to language, they know what they are talking about, but that means they are talking. They have to talk, or they will pass over the work in silence.

Art since Modernism art depends on contradiction more than ever. Now that shocks never come easily, neither homage nor parody alone can do the job. They can hardly even cause controversy. Pop Art, Surrealism, and Willem de Kooning nudes, to name only a few, anticipate Currin with a third alternative. Their love-hate relationship to popular culture and the past remains exhilarating. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, or Gerhard Richter have restored beauty and affection to parody, while they smear or utterly erase the traces of their affection.

That lack of resolution alone resolves nothing. Is Currin really ambiguous or simply incoherent? When he mixes high and low culture, realism and off notes, is he celebrating sexism or putting it at an ironic distance? Has he managed both at once or nothing at all?

At Currin's retrospective, I never did quite find an answer. I hoped for variations on a theme, but I found instead repeated attempts to pin a theme down. I feel for the self-assertion and the somewhat obvious sense of humor, but I never shared in his awe or laughter. I saw an artist willing both to revere and criticize tradition, but never able to escape the blandness that leaves. Call him the Norman Rockwell of post-feminist art. Maybe it makes sense that one of his biggest supporters at The Times is working on a book about Rockwell.

Like the barmaid in Edouard Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère or her counterpart by Jeff Wall, Currin's women enact a male's fantasy but refuse to return his gaze. They have a life of their own. Still, it is a life out of cheap magazines. It made me look all the harder for the artist's ego within his women. Too often, I found it safely outside them.

One notices first the frequent reinvention, starting at perhaps Currin's most traditional and painterly, with the bare-breasted older women. Amid the apparently frank studies, however, sits an imagined portrait of Beatrice Arthur. The subject matter speaks of exposure—of flesh and the gritty reality of age. The image, however, has clarity only in the darkness of her eyes and hair. She has returned from unlikely nude to PG-rated icon. Maybe it means more if one watches enough television.

The joy of sex . . .

Next comes another fascinating "almost." The women grow younger and the breasts a whole lot larger. However, the girls admire each other rather than reach out to acknowledge the viewer. Again I remembered Manet's frank confrontation with Italian and Spanish tradition, and yet here the intimacy only emphasizes the subject's shallowness. Their intimacy, as in photographs by Lauren Greenfield, arises from the comforts of class and consumer culture. The patchy paint on their faces seems less a disruption of realism than a casual invocation of painterly technique.

Next come the radiant Playboy faces, with clothing at once nostalgic and provocative. Yet their golden hues make them hardly worth a long stare—as lecher, as critic, or as a theorist who equates the two. A turn to Cranach's hard outlines, sinuous bodies, big tummies, and black backgrounds may stand for his most overt claim to the mantle of greatness. They make the male leer a lot sillier, and one can see why they made a hit at the 2000 Biennial. Yet they also got me thinking how easily one can find both reasonably skilled realists and commercial imagery. The Times should try a day of open studios.

A focus on self-invention alone invokes artistic genius. Most recently, Currin puts his personal ambitions themselves on display. One notices it particularly at the Whitney, where the impersonal space reflects his aspirations to art history. He looked almost human in the gallery-like confines of London's Serpentine.

A painting named after a New York restaurant that I cannot afford again attains grandeur at the expense of resonance. It may well turn more on the artist's celebrity than on urban wealth and power. Other faces include his wife, also an artist. A large, centrally hung canvas explicitly cites a Rockwell Thanksgiving. Currin, however, has exchanged the mother's open arms for crowded bodies and the pleasures of eating for the blatantly self-indulgent. Okay, okay, I get it.

In his controversy, his fame, his high seriousness, his appeal to cliché, and his blandness, Currin functions as America's Young British Artist. (Like many a Young British Artist, too, Currin has made it past 40.) Maybe that amounts to still another way to say a postmodern Rockwell. It points to the puzzle of dealing with the marketing of art and sex long after America has taken both for granted.

The Chapman brothers outraged London by sculpting little children with private parts for facial features. The uproar at "Sensation" here largely ignored them. Maybe America knows all too well from afternoon TV the flaunting at once of sex and prurience. Maybe America has lost its outrage at the marketing of sex to kids and of childhood innocence to adults.

. . . And the horrors of war

Or maybe not. Maybe Americans do not grasp why it takes department-store mannequins to call attention to exploitation. Instead, one is likely to take the exploitation and its nastiness for granted, seeing them as a rather obvious exposure of window dressing. When the Chapmans turn from the joy of sex to the horrors of war, I have much the same feeling. When their mannequins stage Disasters of War by Francisco de Goya, I recognize and respect their serious intentions. However, I end up feeling next to nothing.

Goya still shocks after two horrifying centuries because of his honesty. It includes his eye on war and the originality of even having one. It includes his not blaming it all on the French. Think of an unforgettable title, The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters. When reason sleeps, Goya insists, unreason shamefully prevails. Yet suena means dream as well as sleep, and all this horror may act out the dream, the id, of reason itself.

For Goya, cruelty grows more horrifying still, for anyone could bring it back to life. By recycling his imagery like one more catalog ad, the Chapmans, too, see horror everywhere. By using bland three-dimensional models, they, too, locate the horror in a shared culture and its shared dreams. However, they represent those dreams as if imposed from without. One imagines their art, like a commercial, conceived by a media chain and beamed down from a distant satellite. It seems less to bubble up from the unconscious than to trickle down from Comedy Central.

The Chapman Brothers end up celebrating little and criticizing still less. They make sex and violence familiar, but without forcing me to recognize myself in it. Currin runs into the same postmodern problem of facing at once the present and the past. Humor seems so obvious now. Denying it seems merely pompous. Reveling in it seems indistinguishable from pandering. Combine the two and one has a Bush press conference.

At that Whitney Biennial, Currin shared the room—and the limelight—with Lisa Yuskavage. Her nudes, too, have a comforting glow and an equally comforting availability. Her gallery show this past spring had women out of Eric Fischl's suburbia. When they looked toward the window, one had to imagine who else in America's dream world of privacy and ownership might be looking in. Unlike for Fischl, however, her women look patently unathletic. They have a strange expression between silence in tears.

Undressed and looking toward the window, they look trapped between their own desire and their fear of the gaze from outside. With Yuskavage, I believe in the light. I believe in the fear and longing, and I find a side of female vulnerability not meant entirely for me. I still want to find all that in Currin. Yet for now, both in London and at the Whitney, I found myself moving through his retrospective with too little incentive to fill out his theme with my own stare.

Hard core

Does art still have a space for political critique or imaginative self-recognition? I see it at times in Currin. I see it more often, though not always, in Yuskavage. Maybe most of all, the postmodern paradox helps me see again the heritage of criticism and challenge in Modernism, from Pablo Picasso's wild women to abstract art under Stalin. In fact, I could look back even further, to another kind of harsh realism—that of Gustave Courbet and his encounter with vision, sex, and paint.

When I saw the bare, naked ladies, I thought of Courbet's nude. Spread so that she falls toward the viewer's space, she has the very center of her body most exposed. When I saw those rough patches on Currin's faces, I thought of Courbet's scumbled rocks. They seem about to come alive in one's hands. When I saw the equation of seeing with desire, scandal, and kitsch, I thought of how Courbet supposedly shocked nineteenth-century Paris. He already painted unathletic women with pubic hair.

Has the old man come once more to exploit sex, or has he come to confess the limits of his desire and its necessity to his art? As with Currin, the ambivalence will not go away soon, but at least Courbet's still shakes me up. Currin knows enough to see through the reduction of women to sex objects. Will he ever make me see more than that as well?

By his retrospective, John Currin had already gone through change after change in the hope of keeping alive the pleasures of kitsch and the scandal of discovering it. More than two years later, he tries so hard it hurts, and it takes a patient soul to mistake the variety of desperate measures for a versatile imagination.

Some paintings again turn the male gaze on Mannerism, older women, distorted anatomy, or Upper East Side mores—another depressing sign of what Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl have called Neo-Mannerism. Most, however, go hard core, often with female coupling and faux Rococo brushwork. Does equating lesbianism with titillation and shock restore a safe, straight male agenda? No doubt Currin joins just that critique. In other words, once again, he gets to play both sides of the street.

As one might expect, the painter known for his skill in academic realism comes closest to succeeding at his most unnatural. Critics pointed in particular to paintings of an old man and boy, hung side by side. The former's sagging flesh looks more like Play-Doh to me than signs of age, and the implication that Currin is seeing the same person in youth and age does not add anything profound. Still, at least these devices suggest conscious artifice. If only Currin could stop having his clit and eating it, too.

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John Currin ran at The Whitney Museum of American Art through February 22, 2004, after a run at the Serpentine Gallery, London, through October 26, 2003. (I saw it at both places, but not in Chicago, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which organized the exhibition.) Lisa Yuskavage ran at Marianne Boesky through June 27. Currin's 2006 exhibition ran at Gagosian uptown, through December 22.


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