John Currin: New Paintings (2010)

John Currin at Gagosian Gallery, November, 2010

Fragonnard and Bronzino walk into a 60’s style house party where pills are served along with beverages. Fragonnard grabs the Viagra and Bronzino takes the acid – and any offspring of an ensuing tryst would undoubtably have to be John Currin.

The current exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York City shows Currin at the top of his game and will please those of us who enjoy his provocations, and befuddle those who wish he would just go away. This is an improvement over his last offering at Gagosian in which he simply painted pornographic scenes with choppy brushwork. If that was a mid life crisis I’m glad he’s over it! It seems he has melded the finer aspects of his technique with a bristling sexuality and a great sense of composition.

His style reflects an appreciation for mannerist sensibilities with a penchant for bourgeois erotica. In two large stellar works, The Women of Franklin Street and Conservatory he goes after the subject matter with a lustful abandon. Franklin Street presents the “Three Muses” as lesbian sisters, and with the central figure smiling directly at the viewer, she appears not at all self conscious.While Fragonard’s sincerity lends itself to camp, Currin utilizes camp as a tool, the outcome of which makes his paintings slightly disturbing, arriving at a point just between attraction and repulsion. The thoroughness of his compositions and his attention to detail, signifies a painter in his prime who enjoys creating these lush and luminous works. I enjoyed the light washes of paint which mold the women’s bodies, as contrasted against the heavy impasto paint handling in other areas of the canvas, the lace on the one woman’s nightgown, or flourishes of highlights on creased fabrics.

There are two relatively quiet paintings in this show, ‘The Reader’ and ‘Mademoiselle’ which are straightforward and could have been done in an atelier. They harken back to a different time without any of the camp infusing most of Currin’s work. The skin tones are soft and subtle, and distortions are kept to a bare minimum. Both are nicely realized poses, and if it wasn’t for their inclusion here I wouldn’t have guessed the works to be from Currin.

Conservatory’ is a work which seems poised for take off with it’s two protagonists presumably sexually aroused by the music they had been playing. Talk about a crescendo, this is one of the most passionate pieces I’ve viewed from Currin to date.Once again your eye is led around the composition by strategic placement of arms, legs and hands, bent in such a way that they read like a roadmap of flesh. Even though it is just two figures, this work is an exquisite construct – a study in triangles in both positive and negative space.

I once took a group of students to a Rembrandt exhibit and pointed out the various anatomical anomalies that were only obvious once you mentally removed the clothing from the model. Currin seems to delight in this visual trick and runs with it!While there are many other interesting offerings here, the final nude in this exhibit is ‘The Old Fur’ a striking work so anatomically distorted it redefines the beauty of the nude. The expanded torso and truncated folded legs gives the figure a strange lightness, like a fawn leaping through a forest.

This painting is also noteworthy for its range of brushwork. For an image that appears so soft at a distance, I was surprised to see Currin working on a canvas with the texture of burlap. There is in his works an interesting contrast between his subtle flesh tone palette and the thick impasto flurries of paint on the woman’s opened fur coat.

There is obviously an invitation here not to the viewer – we remain the voyeur – but to an unseen consort beyond the canvas edge. Between the rough and the soft, the academic and the distorted, the passionate and the ridiculous, Currin’s work straddles the two emotions, which keeps one off balance just as you get comfortable. In my view at least, being dizzy from the art is the whole point.

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