Saturday, January 26, 2008

"People who like this sort of thing will like this a lot."

So said a gallery goer, overheard by artist John Currin's father at the November 2006 opening at the Gagosian Gallery. The current issue of the New Yorker has a profile of the artist; click here for a slideshow of Currin's work.

The painting below, titled "The Dane," was one of the many pornographic paintings in that exhibition. Currin was preoccupied with Denmark after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the infamous Muhammad cartoons.

Currin's father told New Yorker writer Calvin Tomkins that his son had a "screwy idea that he's backing up the people in Denmark who published those cartoons," adding "but I think he did it because he could."


Currin told Tomkins that he called the painting above "The Dane" to say that (he jokes), "when they're not involved in cartoon controversies, this is what they're doing." He continued,
"If all your freedoms are taken away, even sleazy porn becomes valuable. There are a lot of levels for me here -- a parody of what I imagine Europe to be, a parody of my life before September 11th, of my life before I had children, and also a picture of a sunset, this falling light of liberty. I know that seems like bullshit, but I always liked to impose meanings on paintings that can't quite bear them. Anyway, calling the that picture 'The Dane' and linking it up with the Muhammad cartoon thing was very exciting for me. It gave me a direction."
Too bad it dates the painting so much. But I appreciate the trickery of imposing meanings on art that can't quite bear it. I think it's refreshing to hear an artist confess to adding intellectual layers that aren't actually implicit.

Critic Jerry Saltz wrote in 2006 that:
"Currin is combining porn, mannerism and an idea pioneered by that ultra-sexual alpha-male artist, Picasso. For me, a big part of cubism’s greatness comes from Picasso devising an extraordinarily forceful pictorial system that allowed him to portray what he wanted to see most: Breasts, vulva, eyes, stomach, anus, labia, mouth, clitoris and buttocks all at the same time and all on one plane. Porn does something similar, only without the force or formal radicality. Porn is all convention. It has to do certain things in certain ways or it’s laughable and amateur, or not porn at all."
I think it's the next wave of embarrassed men trying to justify their delight in the nude (if not naked) female form. Turning his pornographic source material, obscene art -- if we can for a moment call it art -- into both high art (painting) and low art (hazy lighting, silly expressions, vintage J.C. Penney catalog pantsuit and housecoat poses), lets us pretend that we're not just looking at mere porn. It distances us from both the female form and from our own sexuality. It pokes fun at it in a way that shows how ashamed of it we are. Do we really need to wrap our sexual appetites in a thick coating of kitsch?

New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in 1999, "Mr. Currin mixes leering, lightheaded kitsch with old-masterish weight as if there were no distinction." Is this a good thing? To echo the gallery goer whose quote serves as my headline, if you like this sort of thing, no one does it better.

These paintings remind me of the old stripper pens I used to see as a kid, the ones with a picture of a man or a woman that would suddenly appear nude depending on how you tilted the pen. They were crude, and titillating, but they were not sensual or erotic. They were a gag that pandered to a childish curiosity and discomfort with nudity.

It's too hard to do erotic art without turning it into kitsch. Too many variations have already been done with varying degrees of success. It's so much easier to be crude than it is to be explicitly sensual.

Currin's saving grace now, as before, may be that he's a very skillful painter.

Though I've heard that debated. New Republic art critic Jed Perl recently wrote that Currin's "mousy imitations of old-master portrait styles would not earn him a freelance gig as a magazine illustrator." That's harsh. Tomkins wrote: "Currin is probably right that his skill level doesn't match that of a mid-level nineteenth-century painter, but he was improving all the time, and this put him ahead of just about every American painter in sight."

As Jerry Saltz wrote in 2006, Currin "used traditional ideas about painterly skill to get beyond shtick." With similar artists, like the overrated Lisa Yuskavage (see above), the blending of porn and the Precious Moments figurine aesthetic aren't buoyed by an impressive technical skill or art historical reference. Yuskavage and Currin are friends; they went to Yale's graduate art school together.

"I liked the idea of a beautiful painting that has this big problem," Currin told Tomkins in the New Yorker article. "Like a lead ball chained to its ankle. A heavy weight that keeps it from ever being good." Is he not afraid, then, of painting something truly good? Afraid of success?

Who in the history of art has done erotic art right? That's a subjective question, but I'm sure we all have artists in mind. I think Man Ray did it well.

And I think that two factors can make erotic art more palatable: time and culture. Ingres's Le Bain Turc (Turkish Bath, 1862), a circular painting that looks like a peephole into a bath full of frolicking nude ladies, has gained respectability over the last 140 odd years because of the skill and reputation of the artist. Japanese shunga prints may be too clinical to be truly erotic. But the distance that a different time and a different culture give can restore a more narrow eroticism to a broader audience.

Couldn't that happen with Currin's work? Will we not be looking back at his goofy mixture of 1970s and '80s Montgomery Ward catalogue images and cheap pornography as an earnest commentary on male sexuality for the time? Will it not raise porn to the level of folk art, and mass photography (catalogues, year books, Olan Mills portrait studios) to a level of nostalgic realism? You never know. But from here it looks like a momentary spasm in art history, a reaction to the freedom we all experienced after the darkness of late '80s and early '90s political correctness. It's all part of the backlash and because of that, I don't think it will last.

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