Tuesday, November 19, 2013

John Currin at Gagosian, Paris

John Currin, San Remo, 2013

John Currin’s current exhibition of pornography-inspired paintings at Gagosian really brought home to me how long I have now been out of the United States, and how out-of-touch with contemporary American painting I have become. Not only was I not familiar with Currin’s work, despite the fact he has had retrospectives at the Whitney, the Hirshhorn and various other major American institutions. But I couldn’t connect with them in anyway. It is quite clear what the paintings are trying to do, but I found them conceptually overwrought and visually not that interesting.

John Currin, Lynnette & Jeanette, 2013

That said, there were elements of the paintings that I did appreciate. In paintings that cast a critical eye over the manufacture of sex and intimacy —  as it is made by advertising, pornography, art history — Currin paints (usually) women being sexual in ways that we never talk about: explicitly provocative, exposed, with no vulnerability, and no compromise. What I enjoyed was that the women’s bodies were never perfect. While they were not “normal” in the sense that they were not necessarily bodies that I see in the locker room at the gym, they are also not the airbrushed perfect, flawless bodies that we see in magazines. The woman can vary in age, size, with extra flesh, loose flesh, discoloured flesh. Their faces are always discontinuous with the bodies: innocent, doll-like, not real. Their bodies are voluptuous, provocative, raunchy, sometimes even grotesque. But the grotesquery is not because of the bodies, it’s because of the positions they are in, the explicitness of the display of female sexuality and pleasure.

John Currin, Tapestry, 2013
Everything about the images makes them confrontational: that the women are looking at the viewer, and if their eyes are not, their genitals are. They are also confrontational because we are used to sex being sold to us, being told of our obsession with sex in ways that these images defy: genitals dominate the image, fornicating lesbians, female orgasm, lusty, female prototypes. Even in 2013 when you would think nothing could phase us, all of these images continue to confront. We also see these kinds of images on bus stops all over the city, but there is a difference: the women used by advertising are airbrushed nipples and no apparent cellulite, rather than sagging tits and oversized butts.
John Currin, Installation View at Gagosian Paris
The images also appear confrontational because of the glib references to art history, references that come in the use of colours that resemble aged surfaces, the attention to detail, to character even though it’s not always present. Currin’s paint is thin, not like an old Master painting – despite what the gallery information claims – the surfaces have no sheen, no gloss, no density, there’s something very exposed about the paint on the canvas. The paint technique is however, apparently close to a sixteenth and seventeenth century way of working. Currin paints an undercoat, in flesh colour, “raw umber” with a binding agent of sun-thickened linseed oil. And from there he begins to build up the flesh tones. The figures themselves are drawn from the face of his wife, his own body parts, and often with the same bodies and faces painted over and over again. The use of the same model also makes the paintings unsettling, adding to the grotesquery, where the figure loses character and individuality, becoming even more of an object of sex on display. 

image copyright John Currin

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