rev., August 20, 2015.
note: there is a bit of nudity in this one.
Twice in the last season I was surprised to hear an artist, in both cases female, both under 45, say out loud that she had been inspired in the mid 1990s to take on feminist issues because of her negative response to the “sexism” of John Currin’s paintings. I was dumbfounded, and immediately thought of Prufrock, “that is not what I meant at all.” Since it would seem that among the under-45s it has indeed become common currency that John Currin is a bad painter who only traffics sexist soft erotica for the rich, perhaps a review of this career is required by a critic who happened to be one of the first critics to get what he was all about.
In fact, I wrote about John Currin when he was precisely John Nobody, in 1990, when he did a small show, I forget where, of his high school yearbook photo paintings. I got them right away, and who would not, at that time?. As pictures, Currin’s practice was straight up picture theory, but then with a twist. As paintings, there was little question that Currin had also taken in the ethos and aesthetic of the so-called “bad painting” of the 1980s, a postpop derivation of painting by way of picture theory. His art then derived both from its source, in photography, and then in its outcome, in painting, and what I liked about Currin is that he got it, and got it with razor sharp accuracy in capturing exactly what it is about an old high school yearbook picture that becomes, over time, creepy.
I laid out my version of picture theory for a photography-based show of photography and contemporary art I did for the Woodstock Center in the summer of 1991. In that essay, I built my ideas on Barthes, and his notion that photos are made by having their field, but then there is some small point or punctum that grabs you. And that is what makes a photo a great photo. He mainly did this with the example of the eyes of the assassin conspirator against Lincoln, and the punctum being, the look in those eyes telling you, he was going to die.
I thought that Barthes was wonderful, but modernist. That is, he retained the notion that the photograph per se was photographing a coherent reality on a single field plane. By contrast, I thought that photography itself was a rather volatile and unstable medium easily invaded and influenced by other media and as a result a kind of catchall in which different fields could and did often collide in ways much more versatile than in painting. I guess you could say I went through an uninformed folk learning period of coming to awareness of this when I was into “old photos” in the context of looking at old photos from the American civil war, in the 1970s, when criticism was just then coming to realize that Gardner faked a lot of his shots, not only by airbrushing in romantic clouds, but in actually moving dead bodies on the field to get a better photo (this discussed elsewhere)
Whether or not my reading of Barthes was true (I never had time for Susan Sontag), I leave for another time. But the difference was that while Barthes felt that the field of the photo was fixed, and it was an itch of contradiction or fall through to some other field, like the unravelling of a sweater from one stray snag, that reached out to the viewer and snagged him or her with an emotion, I thought that the picture itself was a mosaic of shifting tectonic plates representing the fields that have been wrested together to look like they compose a single reality by means of the cycloptic eye of the camera.
In addition to this notion, I had a larger conceptualization which has at last gained some theoretical credence from Belting in his studies of intermedial relations. My notion was that images migrated from media to media, from market to downmarket and outofmarket phases, in their lifetime in popular and high culture. Images were always migrating every which way in culture, and the “times” of the moment consisted of capturing the location as if on a radar where all those different push-pulls of images happened to be fixed in any particular moment. In the moment then the photo looks “cool” and the look adopted by the sitter, for example in a portrait, looks fashionable and uptodate, the viewer is generally locked in with the sitter, and therefore blind to the limitations of the style, or the makeshift knocked together nature of any style. Thus, in the present, pictures can come off looking ok, or looking great. And, then, time passes, and something odd happens, something that has bothered and concerned artists a lot in the postpop era, images age, they wrinkle, they crinkle up, they curdle. Not only does the medium go out of fashion, meaning that whatever posture had to be assumed to look normal in that medium now looks forced and phoney, but the fashions and the looks, and even the body language and bearing of the people involved, it all goes out of fashion. It was my thought, and Cindy Sherman made her film stills about this notion, with regard to her capture of this effect in movies, that in a photograph the “fissures,” those fault lines where fields meet, are always there, but during the fashionable moment, they are invisible, and they only become visible afterwards, when the framing medium, the framing moment, and the framing attitudes and culture die off. I called this quality of patchedtogethernesss hidden in photography especially, more than any other medium, in my 1991 catalog essay, and this was the title of my show, the Inherent Vice of photography, borrowing the term that conservators use to describe the impossible preservation situation when a painter for example like Blakelock uses degradable elements in his paint that cannot possibly be preserved. I called it Migration Theory, and it is all but impossible to understand any of my ARTS magazine or FLASH ART magazine reviews of the period without understanding that all the points I made, few which were appreciated, were devised from my marshalling of migration theory.
I also had a still larger macro notion that when an image exists as pictures in a particular market and it thrives in popular culture and looks fashionable and with it and cool and hip and up to date, and it is part of the market, that usually means that a locked-in agreement between art and audience has been invisibly enacted, and thus one dimension of the work is by that agreement exaggerated and exploited, to cause all any other more troubling disturbances to be silenced beneath. When an image is in its prime in the market it therefore is commercialized, and in that one dimension only one aspect of it is ever addressed or paid attention to. The fact that most people absorb most images most of the time in an incidental manner, at one dimension, reinforces this in the moment power. But then the moment passes, the images drops out of currency, then, again, something weird happens, it begins to look funny, or evil, or nostalgic, something that you maybe thought looked really cool, suddenly looks ridiculous, something that once was taken for granted, now looks ridiculously artificial. WE ALL KNOW THIS FEELING, and WE ALL EXPERIENCE THIS. Anyone who says that they do not experience this inherent vice in photography, and the irony, but also nostalgia and a host of other thanatoptic ideas, is a liar, or a witch, it is the basis of the planned obsolescence of images and pictures in our media age. Consider yearbook pictures
The high school yearbook photo has taken on such an iconic role as the very ground zero where this verfremdungseffekt of time is enacted that there are even now search websites devoted to scanning through the yearbooks of high schools all over the country, so that you can look back, and laugh. The entertainment news is stock full of Stars when they were dorks in their high school year book pictures. Some people keep the pictures, others toss them away. Some see that, hey, I was pretty good looking back then, others wince, and push away the dork of old. We all have experienced this. If we look back and pshaw at a lost prime, it could be said we make of the picture a cult image of our better selves, but also plaintively conceding the uneasy passage of time (since growing up seems to be the great trauma of American life). If, however, we were a dork or a nerd and have somehow risen above it, to make a new cult self, then it can be hidden as a former avatar, and an apotropaion to prevent us from ever going back to that. Then, of course, as is common in horror movies, if the dork picture was part of a hazing or bullying and the subject of ridicule at the time, leading to the figure dropping out, and filling with hatred, it can remain the prod that like a scarecrow fuels an apotropaic culture of revenge, to make of them all that teased you, a trophy less than that image. That is, in terms of agency theory, high school yearbook pictures are a remarkably rich resource, with lots of variations.
But then confronting the original image is tricky, because you are still dealing with an image which is locked in in itself within the frame of the time, and it only leeches that irony in the space between the image and the viewer, the suspicion is that it is you that are bringing the feeling to it. And so it was necessary at some point for some artist to bring the insights of Cindy Sherman and of the Picture Theory people about the way that images naturally age and change meaning, generating, often, from within, their very own irony, in a fluid and ever changing way, to bring this notion into the very devices and processes of making a picture, or a painting. That is what the bad painters did: bad painters are simply defined as painters who paint copies of images from real bad paintings, or from a genre of bad paintings, to re-represent them in the higher state of mind of irony and awareness of their migration. This observation then is meant to enlighten you, releasing you from the “natural attitude” with regard to “straight photography” (the mission of the constructivist mindset of the generation of 1950), and thus be more visually literate in an epoch of shifting and migrating images, that what you see is not what you get, that images do lie, and lie again and again, that when you like an image you are often liking it for very odd emotional reasons, and that, in short, looking at pictures is not a flat process but a three-dimensional emotional process where the image itself is altered by the relation addressed to it. By processing a migrating aesthetic that once was low and now is high into bad painting, bad painters made cultural trophies of defeated souls and lowdown timewasting tastes, to gently and sometimes rather sweetly accept all art as art of some sort. If you live at a state of accepting everything you see and read as real, then you are in for a world of trouble in working your way through life, but art will help you. A very large contingent of the so called East Village artists of the pre-International With Monument moment were all about this ‘bad’ cultivation of low popular culture sources (I can think of Kim Keever, Kiley Jenkins, Joel Otterson, Rhonda Wall, Ric Prol, others of that sort, between neoexpressionism and postpop). Side discourses running alongside of this were tastes that developed for arty moments in actual bad paintings, including thrift store paintings (Jim Shaw to Kenny Scharf), Black velvet paintings, which I love, motel room painting (my specialty), and other bad art that one finds in, for example, where I have reencountered by surprise this whole discourse, horror movies. If you live a natural attitude and what you see is what you get, all of this is just bad. However,if you are cultivated to a higher sense of the mutability and constructivism of images, you are more likely to see the art in all images and in life.
John Currin, addressing the ur source of bad pictures, the yearbook picture, and thus a sense of image curdling that everyone will understand, was the first artist to address the issue with such precision that you could look at the image once, and not see it, and then look at it a second time, and then get it. That is, it is easy to photobomb and meme an image which one right upfront (in today’s cheap easy hipster rejection of all imagery’s sincerity) thinks is ridiculous, but much more difficult to represent the image with such a fine command of its “fissures” (that is, it’s dissolving lines) that one time you look at it one way and then you see it the other way. The fact that this double take and this constant pull back to not sure is what he is saying is, of course. exactly what in the end got John Currin apparently in trouble, and misinterpreted by those youngsters that said he was sexist, but it is also what makes his art art, as such fine line command is the very fibre of figure-ground relations and also of physiognomic perception. If John Currin had just done a Jerry Lewis lampoon of some creepy nerdy girl back in high school that would have been easy. But, instead, he gave us this
She is sweet, she seems like a nice girl, it’s a nice simple picture of a nice looking, if somewhat mousy girl. Or so first impression says. For then, almost immediately, the image begins to Dorian Gray on you. That is, there is something in the fictive space which, commanding the fissures located I would say in the support, begins to curdle. Suddenly, her sweater reminds you of the type of girl that wore that sort of thing then. It seems a bit out of date, it comes off as armor. (I concede–and this may be a drawback of this approach–that the work may require a generational reference bank to trigger fully, as, for example, I adore “sweater girls” because I grew up in the era when good Catholic girls would display themselves in sweaters, and you first learned of their torsos through sweaters, as, for example, Leslie Gore
Then, you see that she is groomed rather too Dorothy Hamill, isn’t she? she is overdoing it on the sweetness, not in any noticeable way, but just as a vibe given off by the painting. Haircuts have very short lifetimes, but, for that, stick hard in the memory. Again, Hamill was an Olympic ice skating champion whose bobbed do was the cat’s pajamas in the 70s
So much so that all the girls, as I have remarked in review, in Friday the 13th (1980) are still all decked out in Dorothy doos, which look a little dorky to later tastes
One begins to think of her as kind of weird and creepy, like one of the Children of the Damned (a movie whose idea I also think came from precisely this same sort of dated appraisal of older material).
And then there is another image, in the same show (these are the works that I responded to, love at first sight, an artist having finally found a way to make picture theory in painting work),
And at first there is, again, an attention to the detailed care with which the artist captured the individuality of the sitter, as expressed by her just so pursed lips, her somewhat different nose, her eyes, and then her hair seems wilder. But then the sweater rises up again. You see that all white girls (but others too) back then dressed exactly the same. That choosing from one to the other was a matter of micro selection. That they were all so well groomed, so obsessed with projecting an image of sweetness and softness (hence the image of touchability, the sweater), then that hair, with its own semiotics out of movies, expressive here of inquisitiveness, openness, that they all look the same. And you might even have remembered going through the book and seeing this picture and remembering that you knew her and maybe touched her, the picture attracts you to it, by its hidden double blind nature, a great deal of conflicted emotion (and this, I think, without revisiting it, is what I picked up on in my review). Because this painting was based on photos, because it was based on a medium holding in it a document of a fashion that changed, because it was all negative punctum compared to now (should I call this the funkpoint?), because it captured its curdling, but then still managed to let the original reading surface now and then come through, resulting in conflicted feeling, I thought it was a great work of art. I reviewed it as such. I have no idea if a small review in Arts magazine at the very beginning of his career had any impact on the progress of Currin’s career, but I do know that even with all of the picture theory and bad painting theory in the air, I felt pretty much alone in my appreciation of the niceties of his work.
Of course, you could not go on doing yearbook pictures forever. Or rather, programmatic artists, who do serial things, but I think more to hide the limitation of their concepts, like Katharine Opie, would, but if you are to climb up, you have to take your notion on the road. At some point, in order to foreground the concept and fight back the tendency of people to reify the picture as a mere portrait and a pretty one at that, you have to transfer the conceptual formula to another sort of image and find the same thing there, and then have the skill to draw it out there too. And in this Currin showed his amazing grasp of his conceptual formula per se, his ability to transfer it to other sources, and eventually to all sources of bad painting, and thus create by means of this occupation and conquest of other fields demonstrate his conceptual command of his art, making him a major figure who then rose up through the red chip level (Andrea Rosen) to the blue chip (Gagosian). It is in the thirty six months from 1991 to 1994 that Currin rose up from being a “bad painting” painter to being what I prefer to call today a “conceptual painter.”
In his next body of work, he somehow got the notion that pictures of women in bed in, I think, old movies, had the same queer uncanny oddness as yearbook pictures. I do not know the sources of these, but will collect a few. But, immediately, I saw that these were a step up, a less obvious source, a less apparent fissure (itts in the pull of the bedding to the chin, the look of need or….something in the eyes), and a less apparent purpose, not portraits, but pictures of some sort. Again, a second round with Currin, I loved these (this was shown in 2013 in the New Museum’s 20 year survey of 1993, and I think was misplaced, however, looking at it again as an old friend I saw again the tucked up weirdness of its all as dead on uncanny ironic John Currin, made even better because of modest size and framed in lovely silver .
I in fact had an encounter with precisely this sort of image in watching an old movie recently. Here is another somewhat older woman in bed
And in the movie, The Orphan: Friday the 13th (1979), a then 54 year old actress is in bed unable to fall asleep. A few things, since it would appear that Currin is beginning to mine movies in this. In this shot (below), there is the natural existential oddness of movies, that the viewer is being let into an intimate moment of a woman who is a stranger, but whom we have voyeuristically come to identify with through the alchemy of movies. On that point, I at present defer (Mulvey etc). But then the fissures are in the nature of the woman she is, at 54 in 1997, that was old! way older that 54 in 2015 is! Then, a woman wanted to mature into a woman, today she just wants to be a grown old girl. And so her fussiness, her formality, her going to bed in a formal night gown, in pure light blue, still protesting her virtue,
I especially like the ruffles, she “gets dressed up” for bed. An then that she has a fancy headrest, and uses it, and lies in it all like a queen, and her posture is echoed in the properties of the time, by the lamp, set next to the bed not only bespeaking her own introspection and warmth, but her intimacy. And then it appears she is thinking about the boy’s father, whom she loved, so she touches her breast
Again, in actual life, not a moment at all, but in this context, given what she is thinking, a masturbatory thought, it is an odd shot, full of repressed emotion, an artifact in her body language and in her arsenal of self-touching, of the time, as if she is imitating another’s hand that once touched her there. And then she looks for a picture, perhaps to by mental voodoo enhance a session of masturbation to follow, but the picture is not there, so she jumps up, and, in doing so, and, in doing so, I think, signaling to us that she was thinking of masturbating, she bares a breast, a symbol of repressed or conflicted wanting sexual desire.
Given the character she has played vis a vis the boy throughout, it is shocking to see in private, the private battles she goes through, how her body language wilts from one of public command to private weakness and need. And in every case here, what makes this sequence interesting today is that, while it still does have an inherent emotionally acted quality, it it is etched as if in an outline of black by time having passed, and the fact that a lot of women today do not dress as queens for bed, for formality, or do not think themselves, at 54, above all that, thus repressing their sexual urges in a way that results in such a scene. Old movies, as Cindy Sherman knew, were the primary source of stereotypes of women, that, when times change, are then exposed as funny, or corny, or ridiculous, by all the lines changing all around them. But it was Currin who found that it is not just a matter of stereotypes, it is a matter of never being able in mediated time to be anything but a temporary accommodation to passing fancies and ideas, without any ground or permanence,, and thus remain forever fragile and threatened.
Indeed, too, Currin then progressed to a THIRD body of work, where, once again, he took a whole other array of images in the popular culture (this possibly derived from Cindy Sherman’s treatment of the same issue), the representation of older women, and made some absolutely amazingly weird warm-ironic paintings, such as Skinny Woman (1993),
This woman is a masterpiece because it is true, and ironically comments as well on how true it is. This is a woman of a certain age (past 50) who is struggling to keep herself together, and young and sexy. And so she has gone for any number of the various feints or devices of a “look” that older woman routinely enlist to, even in their age, look young, in this case the boy haircut, to downplay the gray, and then her skinniness, and her having decided that her neck is her best feature, and accentuating that more than any other body part (all women, enslaved by fashion, partial to their bodies, all having a best feature, and a worst, in their mirror estimation). It was the skinniness that of course at the time gained all the attention, as fashion and its world and its clientele is routinely every season ad infinitum ad nauseum talking up how much it glories the skinny, as a way of always addressing an issue it then never had to actually do anything about (this too was the era when Kate Moss and heroine chic emerged, so its possible that picture took on a lot temporary flack from the passing issues of the day). But the thing that is absolutely best about this picture is that, again, though it is entirely ironic, and a demonstration of the fissures which have opened up to expose her posture and pose as artifice of her time and time in life, it is also a kind of loving tribue to the certain sort of dated look of womanhood which she modelled herself on, and in the Upper East Side of New York, the strong, rich, working woman goes way back, in the modern period, to Kay Thompson, whose Think Pink in Funny Face, is behind this image, the ur prototype as it were of this imitation
And when people watch an old movie like Funny Face, one is in a mixed state of mind, on the one hand, it is ridiculous, can you believe how people behaved back then? it is absurd, because even though you know they are also, just like us in 1990, talking about fucking, actual sex, they were never allowed to show much, so you don’t quite know, and then it is just wonderful, so stylish, so formal, so Paris, so chic, so I don’t know what. It is a mix of feelings which I think is best summed up by the word often used to describe this sort of thing, fabulous. And that is the quality that Currin captured in the picture.
And then of course there is exploitation. This is a second layer of address that Currin less frequently addressed, but he knew it existed. This would be a THIRD body of work variation. When an image curdles, it is the image’s internal disposition as patched-together medium, surface, fictive and support spaces, that curdles, that comes unglued, that begins to show its cracks. But then it is also true that the image exists as I said in migration theory in a larger culture, and in that culture any number of bad exploitative impulses can be directed at the image, which make it ridiculous. Exploitation movies were a form of bad faith image and picture making, in which under the guise of, for example, doing a serious documentary about venereal disease, it got to show a lot of sex, to the surreptitious, exploiting audience could jerk off. It exploited the subject, to sneak in contraband, and then the audience was in on the fix and knew where to go to get their fix. But there is also exploitation motives that spring up just in seeing too, when migration goes awry, and the image, in some new context, is turned upside down, or used for a purpose not originally intended, and thus is exploited. So, in this context, and with reference to the peek at older woman nudity in the movie above, the exploitation aspect is seeing her nude, and an exploiter of this movie might fast forward to only that moment, to see this brief glimpse of her breast. You want to see that, because as her character develops, again in The Orphan, you begin to develop bad feelings about her, and you want to bring her down a peg, or her to be honest with herself. And when a man in an exploiting tear-down moment addresses a commanding presence in female form in that way, the exploiting tactic is always, I wonder what she looks like naked. She is such a stuck up thing, but…..hmm, she still does have a bit of something
And, in fact, this double irony is in Skinny Woman, because, while she may be skinny, her skinniness showing off most in the fact that it makes her hands look big, she still does a hands akimbo on hip pose that does a whole torsion with her blouse and shows that, wow, she really does, for “a woman her age”, still have a quite nice bust (even if, at that age, no one much notices, at least in the 80s)
And so, of course, it would make sense that having mined this secondary channel of irony-cutting or irony-mining in images, Currin would develop it, and sure enough one of the silliest but most famous images he did right in this period was Bea Arthur nude
The reason why this has been called the Mona Lisa of bad painting, or postmodern painting, is that in it Currin returned to the brushed down look of his high school yearbook portraits, so there is nothing on the surface that lampoons her. It is possible that he even took the head from a straight on dressed photo of Bea Arthur. Then too, Bea Arthur was quite possibly a woman whom you never would or could imagine nude, though she was very famous for her caustic sitcom work in the day (I always liked her best in Lovers and Other Strangers). So, she looks creepy, all put together, all the fissues of the yearbook pictures are opened up, then finessed. And then he strips her, and has to imagine what her breasts look like. And now we have, we being exploiting men (but also, perhaps, young women) looking over the shoulder, as it were, of our own looking at them as yearbook pictures, our I wonder what she looks like nude moment. And it is funny, of course, that she does in fact have big breasts, and that they are of a lighter shade, and have a life of their own, so that the fetishist might even find a way to ignore the fact of what body they are attached to and get excited by them. It is just a whole internal vortex of conflicted emotion ingrained by finessing fissues of mediation and migration through it all rolled up into one painting, bespeaking entirely and wholly the complexity of looking at images in the post-straight photography days.
And then having mastered and gained command of his conceptual armentarium, Currin could take it on the road. I remember being at the opening at the Andrea Rosen gallery on Greene and Prince in 1994 when he showed off his FOURTH body of work, a swing off to the more bad painting oriented take offs, I thought, on how silly John Stewart Curry et al would look today, and, again, without readdressing the same issue with regard to the Curry source, he nailed it
which I somehow related to, in mockery, Curry
He suggested that these pseudo Curries were owned by some fellow with a very particular, fetishistic taste, as would be appropriate for the explorations of the downward market swing just then, a taste for very, very large bosoms. I thought of them as all but hanging in some weird guy’s room, very much in the non white cube ethos of 1994. Removing them from the white cube let you also laugh at Currin apparently having devised an absurd genre scene rationale for whatever these two girls are doing (the punctum Barthes style is that the figure in white is trying to help the figure in red with a particular problem of bodily presentation, but the joke is she hasn’t solved it either, as evidenced by a breast that falls on, all to be but supported by, her forearm
Currin actually thought of that too, as he did take a meta detour to do some “paintings in paintings”, his girl in bed motif put in the foreground of the motel room picture image that he then foregrounded in this 1994 exhibition (I am even more interested in this notion now, see my blog)
This lateral movement of his ideas into meta zones, or counterrealities of the pictures, meant that he could stretch out from the centering in his practice, to make jokes far off to the side, in the crawlspaces of his concepts. That lead then to a brief period, not unlike Magritte’s La Vache period, where he did a few joke paintings, because he did get himself in a place where he imagined himself as painting the bad paintings in whatever imaginary motel room that lady is lying in, thus works like The Wizard (1995), which broaches the topic of clown paintings, and paintings by amateurs somewhat scary
as Magritte, in La Vache art, he “went there” because he was mad at the surrealists, and wanted to break away from their refinements
And then he swung back, in the late 90s and early 00s, by way of Norman Rockwell or All American 1940s movie imagery, and again, another great period of my appreciation of Currin, I could go into these over and over again, many of them lifted, I think, from a favorite resource of mine, 1940s movies, to capture the many looks of American women as they keep changing decade after decade
Now and then this body of All American work let Currin fall off the fine line of irony, as, for example, I tend to like this picture, simply because it is a rich, deep, baroque capturing of a certain type of American woman of the upper classes, having their Thanksgiving (2003) in their way (if we are playing punctum again two things, that the girls seem to be unaware of visual bodily rhymes between the prepared turkey and their naked skin, ie they are a kind of sacrifice; and as always everyone is always seeking a roman a clef presence of his girlfriend then wife Rochelle Feinstein and she may be here in the figure to the left, though I prefer not to autobiographize his works because that just makes me envious of his rather pleasant painterly existence).
This is also an aspect of this work that causes me to “fall into” the painting and lose critical distance, as this one does seem to derive from an old 40s movies and for that I could now go on to talk about couches and windows, and lovely trees outside of picture windows in those old movies, and he captures the magic of the effect perfectly
and then he went through an old master let’s deconstruct Cranach phase, representing women today with the medieval taste for the rounded belly, which is funny given today’s six pack mania. I would point out that a sexist would never give any attention to the particular points of individual figures
And of course this meant at some point or another he would have to look into old porn because nothing dates quicker than vintage porn. Here too I could expend ten thousand words, as, while the final mechanics of the sexual acts are pretty much the same from decade to decade, how people address each other, approach it, foreplay prior to it, act and behave during it, engage in ritual or not practice in it, etc etc, all of that changes every decade, and has changed so dramatically generally in the shift of era from late modernist sexual revolution sex culture (1955-1985) to post AIDS safe sex sex culture (1990-date) that these pictures of porn acts imaged forth from the imagination of vintage pornsters are a riot. All I will say of vintage porn, 1970s style (and Cecily Brown at one point, about 2000, also made use of the fissures spinning out from this or that), one, it was a very hairy time, the body below the waist was still thought of as nature not culture, woman was still goddess woman, and any act by a man that did not involve full on King Kong phallic chest beating was considered perverse, in the sense of unmanning the man—all a very sexist sexual liberation
then then too Currin seems to want to capture the notthereness of it all. But then too there is a doubling up on his themes because he is picturing the perhaps not vintage exploitation or fetish arrangement where an older woman shows a nubile young thing how its done, then the nubile young thing helps her out, all the time the guy just waiting to get to the young thing, so, old flesh again
(The pornography source issue is complicated still further if Belting’s intermedial stress notion is brought to bear on the images. Back then, it was still something of a challenge to see pornography, and hardcore pornography remained outside the visual world of most people. Today, the internet is built on the limbs of people engaged in pornographic sex, and the world of the internet is an ocean of boobs, this likely has utterly devalued the shock of the image, or at the very least, as seems to have happened in movies, made it no longer worthwhile for the issue to be addressed in the context of film, since if a guy in a theater wants to see boobs, flick on the cell phone)
at this point, Currin can go anywhere. I recently posted on my FB page the riotously funny image of the author Dennis Wheatley posing in a velvet smoking jacket with a glass of champagne in his hand in front of his country home on the back jacket of a 1930s edition of his novel and laughed, wow, he was serious, now it all seems a joke, that is how fashions change, how ridiculous modern man and woman are, trying to be grounded and real in their life, then having to concede that they lived through a period of time where they never could quite fix the look or make it work for them, and as a result, almost in a Baudelairisn way, but negatively so, never quite fit in or lived, and so Currin can go into these subcultures of odd doings imaged forth from who knows what source
But the point is, his conceptual armentarium is solidly in place. There is no way possible that a conceptual painting, as it might be called, with these conceptual underpinnings, the picture being in fact the atom as it were in the middle of the orbiting of fashion and migration that deconstruct them as they form, in the fleetingness of modern life–there is no possible way that these cannot be taken as ironic, and comic, and rueful, and philosophical, and open up to the awareness of the ridiculousness of people in fashion in time, and be called straight up sexist. Sexism is a fixed vision of a sex vis a vis its social gender role, in a world so in flux and so filled with little tragedies of self display and irony of self conception, sexism does not and cannot hold. Somehow, however, some fixed uncritical flatearth perception of Currin as “that painter of those old nudes” or something like that, fixed itself like a meme in the minds of the generation coming after the constructivists (which is weird because hipsters and after live entirely immediately in a world of construction), and thus it worked out that twice in a short period in one season in 2014 AD I heard to artists under 45 say that John Currin is sexist. But he is a critic of a sexist culture, his work represents a critique of representation, his work is reflective about representation, his work could profit and express even Butler’s distinctions between performance and performativity of gender. How then did this happen?
I just have one notion. From 1988 to 1993 the “culture,” which means two market cycles, was driving forward in a downward spin to take queer theory to its logical relativistic conclusion. Since I am a twin, I, of course, have always had an interest in any theoretical disposition which posits that identity is shifting and at least malleable, and not fixed, and certainly not biologically based. At that time, so very, very, very different than today, it was thought that if you tried to argue that, for example, homosexuality was something that was rooted and therefore real because there is a gene for it or some spurt of chemical or other in the brain that makes one a homosexual, meaning that homosexuality cannot be changed, you would have been chased out of Dodge City art world as a nazi. Today, just the opposite. So it is very, very difficult, to recreate the highly flexible and fluid groundless state of consideration of construvism in which John Currin’s paintings first were introduced. I offer a single example, which has taken on emblematic power as a sign of how dramatically the “political correctness” of 1990 has changed entirely and wholly from the “political correctness” of 2015 (and by political correctness I simply mean the politically motivated framing of the discourse by means of determining what is admissible or not, in terms of terminology, address, whatever: it is has absolutely nothing to do with what is true, but with what is accepted by the current groupthink). In the 1993 movie Orlando, at the key point in the saga of Sackville West’s character, Orlando, he, wakes up one fine morning in the 17th century, and looks in the mirror with befuddlement. His penis is gone, that has somehow retracted overnight and then popped back out in a different napkinfold as a vagina, and then he now has soft round low set pelvic mounted hips, an excruciatingly different bone structure, then, above the hips, and he has grown two rather nice breasts. And Orlando looks in the mirror with confusion and then amazement. And then Tilda Swinton turns to the camera and addresses us directly, that is, sticking her head out of the story, and whatever it meant to Sackville West’s negotiation of her own lesbianism in the 1920s, to talk directly to us sitting in the ultimate seventh level of hell of constructivist indie relativity in the early 1990s, the Angelika theatre, and says, “Man, woman, same person, doesn’t matter”.
Who, I ask you, believes that anymore? Indeed, in the last 25 years, homosexual rights as a movement has run to the arms of neuroscience and genetic science to seek commitment and groundedness in the realness of homosexuality, precisely by denying this. Genders have separated off, men are oh those men, women are women. There will always be in the sexual coming to terms of one’s 20s in any culture at any time a certain interest, by those who do not quite fit in either way (and I am not talking here about actual transsexuality, a much deeper feeling than simply being sick of the man-woman sex role thing). But in 1990 it was almost creed, this was the deepest expression of the relativistic manifestation of queer theory of the time. And yet no one would believe the same thing today. So it is possible that the changing large scale tide of the culture from relativism back to a new groundedness in new essentialist theory has also accounted for the misreading of Currin as sexist.
But, take it from someone who was there, none of his work ever struck me at any time as sexist, even in its sexiest, it was always making fun of the stupidity of how we human beings display and manifest in sexual roles, and so best to take the attitude, all is folly, all is vanity, all is silly ridiculous nonsense. Therefore, all I can say is that I have held with the same view of Currin’s work for 25 years. Has he changed much? I would say that he is an example of an artist who put into place fairly early a tight conceptual armentarium, derived from it a lot of rich strands feeding it, then locked that basic conceptual formula in place, but then showed expansion of it by exploring how it worked out in ever more adventurous and more daring challenges in making the formula work in a new body of work derived from a new body of resource. The danger of portraiture and pictures like Currin’s, and this is also likely made still another time worse by the internet, where image per se rules, is that Currin will be reified, and show up some day in some stupidly curated show of contemporary realism, and it also true that in his actual painting, and his sophisticated toying with the nostalgic and sweet side of his images too, he leaves himself open to that problem (again, the recto side of his work is irony, the verso would be to delictate in its niceties)–but, no, John Currin synthesized picture theory as it applied to painting plus bad painting as it was refined by picture theory to create an absolutely of-the-moment 1990 synthesis of the two that remains always and forever a wholesale critique of the way we represent gender in our culture, however it is represented. I got it, day one, and, even though we are in entirely different times, with lines being redrawn, and harder, and essentialism and absolutist thinking on the rebound, I still get it today.