Magazine article Artforum International

John Currin

Magazine article Artforum International

John Currin

Article excerpt

MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, CHICAGO

What is "normal" love? Mom and dad's? Teen sweethearts? God? Your identification with certain characters from the soaps? From Art History 101? Is it the way you feel about your favorite underwear? This earlyish midcareer retrospective of paintings by John Currin provides ample material for the elaboration of these questions; authorities ranging from Saint Paul to Penthouse Letters provide some answers.

The exhibition opens with the middleaged-woman paintings that first earned Currin a particular notoriety ha the early "90s. No discussion of these works should omit Kim Levin's admonishment regarding their debut at Andrea Rosen Gallery to the readers of the Village Voice, "Boycott this show." Currin poses his subjects against stark, blank backgrounds, which he has described as suggestive of Brice Maiden's monochromatic fields--latemodernist high culture or, in the artist's words, "constipated masculinity." The expressions and stances of the figures range from the neutral-as-weird to caricature and the grotesque, like poor Ms. Omni, 1993, a tortuously zigzagging road map of plastic surgeries and knowing attitudes. Bea Arthur Naked, 1991, remains the most sensational of these pictures, and the best. The artist depicts the star of Maude, that '70s sitcom about an uppermiddle-class do-gooder, women's libber, and suburban wit--not Arthur's later incarnation in The Golden Girls. Naked, Arthur nevertheless remains composed and dignified, her smile and slightly peaked eyebrows conveying a sense of irony, even amusement. The portrait is too psychological for the everyday antifeminist caricature. And Currin's technique, stiff but more than adequate, dry but not fussy, betokens too much effort for the sake of mere snide laughter. Painted in the rapidly expanding '90s context of well-meaning art (the kind that Maude herself might collect were she part of the scene?), Bea Arthur Naked draws together multiple threads: the "incorrect" representation of women; the campy Pop aura of television sitcoms, perhaps a hang over from the '80s (think "Infotainment" and all those other group shows about a generation raised by the unwholesome light of the tube); and a commitment to figurative painting in the face of politicized art practices, the ever escalating fortunes of photography, and scatter and/or abject art. Perhaps Currin indulged in the last tendency somewhat, given his debased or pathetic subject matter and an impoverished or superannuated technique that savors more of the thrift-shop aesthetic than of the Old Masters.

Currin might welcome the idea that the women-in-bed paintings that followed in 1993 are allegories of the beholder after the manner of Michael Fried's analyses. Apropos of the "girl in bed," he has said, "She's just a completely passive isolated watcher or spectator.... It's an allegory of what you do when you look at the painting." Subsequent Currin females become ever more pneumatic, with strong emphasis on the breasts. ("Reny Fleur," aka Matthew Licht, celebrated Currin's mammary madness in Juggs magazine.) Alongside this sickish thematic evolves Currin's increasingly pronounced dabbling in the art-historical warehouse. But the eagerly approved notion that he is reviving Old Master techniques is a red herring. Yes, his technique becomes much more fluid and even flashy; the Chicago exhibition convincingly demonstrates Currin's evolution-his improvement--as a painter. …

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