January 26, 2004

John Currin at the Whitney

On the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s great Jackson Pollock retrospective in 1998, I recall reading a particular review of the exhibit in one of the local papers. Suitably in awe of Pollock’s accomplishment, the reviewer led us through the rooms of the show. For many at the time, the final gallery of works was a cause of ill-ease, sadness and disappointment. Coming after the towering breakthrough of the drip paintings and the powerful black and white figurative paintings that followed, the works in the last room of the show appeared to some as disparate, tangential and flailing.

The reviewer in question was among those who found the conclusion to the show, and Pollock’s oeuvre, wanting. The writer said, in essence, that the probable trajectory of this painter's work was easy to imagine. He/she then proceeded to envision the unlived remainder of Pollock’s career - going so far as to describe precise (imagined) paintings complete with names for different (imagined) series'. This writer’s conjectured future for the artist undermined the credibility of the previous (actual) work and, ultimately, implied that Pollock’s premature death was a sort of blessing in that it spared us from having to look at a lot of lousy late-career paintings and spared him from becoming a parody of himself.

Concocting a future for a unique artistic genius is, of course, rampant and a fool’s mission.

It’s possible that, had Pollock not wrapped that car around a tree, he might have had a breakthrough to rival the drip paintings. Unimaginable, to be sure, but no more improbable than the emergence of the drip paintings in the first place - a development that no one could have predicted. They only seem self-evident post their physical manifestation.

With the above story as a cautionary tale, John Currin’s mid-career survey at the Whitney - perhaps because it represents the tantalizing beginning of a life’s work - got me thinking about where he might take us and his work. In contradistinction to the above author’s imagining of a future body of Pollock’s work, Currin’s future of my imagining would seem rife with possibilities that may recast everything we suppose about his present undertaking.

Currin’s work-to-date is predicated on the notion that, in fact, a reactionary approach can be the more progressive strategy. Painting in a highly accomplished realist manner is the reactionary part of the equation. When it comes to the progressive side of the calculation, though, Currin hasn’t shown his cards.

Despite a reputation that characterizes his work as intentionally vulgar, misogynistic or kitschy, what Currin seems most intent to do is reassure. The quality of his paintings register as an objective fact. They are uncommonly well painted, undeniably “good” paintings. To put it bluntly, nobody walks away from a Currin painting saying “my kid could do that.” Or, to employ a metaphor frequently used with Currin: How can the emperor have no clothes if they’re painted so well and I can, in fact, see them with my own eyes?

In an age given to cynicism and overload, this assurance of quality is an experience in rare supply. Its appearance comes as a kind of relief; aesthetic resistance falls. With the viewer’s judgment suspended by this assurance, the painting is perceived, allowing image and content to come to the fore. One of Currin’s great accomplishments is that his paintings have found an opening.

Building upon the strategy of providing reassurance through satisfying reactionary yearnings, Currin makes academic paintings catered to the moment. With a nod to the canon, his works draw their sources from the visual imagery in which the culture is fluent - that is to say the academy of our time - hence, the indebtedness to pinups, porn, fashion magazines and Rockwell inspired illustration and sentimentality.

The people who populate Currin’s paintings are from what one might call the collector class. Like the academic painters of old, he is explicitly appealing to the taste of his audience by (symbolically) painting his patrons. True to tradition, he does this, in effect, by holding up a mirror. This strategy sets up the vexing and indelicate question, “Is getting everything you want the definition of crap?”

In "Fishermen" (2002) the two figures are up to their thighs in a tiny, little boat that, as per conventional anatomy, can’t possibly contain the rest of their lower bodies. Effectively, they have “boat legs.” Boat legs...boot legs. A bootleg of tradition, tweaking the notion of proprietary originality and asking, "Would you download this file?"

The gallery label accompanying “Fishermen” takes care to direct our attention to the virtuosic rendering of the rope looped in the foreground. Often, Currin’s work is presented as a chance to practice old time connoisseurship, an opportunity to deploy the magnifying glass to scrutinize and delight over technical prowess. Thus far, this kind of fetishism has accompanied the appreciation of Currin’s paint handling. In time, though, Currin’s vaunted painting technique may be revealed to be a feint in service to his progressive ends. Technique, representing seemingly measurable, verifiable quality, may be a kind of trojan horse admitting nothing short of mastery into the mix.

In recent years, mastery as a concept and ambition has suffered a conflation with patriarchy and exclusivity. In some ways, this reappraisal would appear reactionary in the extreme. Yet, mastery doesn’t reside on any political or aesthetic spectrum. It is the constant, a wellspring. In its best sense, mastery - meaning the fluid manifestation of intent - is the province of every individual’s unique genius.

The Whitney’s gallery guide quotes Currin as saying, “The subject of a painting is always the author, the artist.” Indicative of Currin’s strategy of redirection, this statement raises the question: When standing before a painting on a gallery wall, who is the authority? The painter, nowhere to be seen, back at work on a new painting in his or her studio, or the viewer presently experiencing the work?

If we are content with marveling over technical virtuosity, then we cede authority to the absent artist. However, if it is mastery we find, we can meet the painting with our own unique genius, in effect becoming the artist. The mirror-like aspects of Currin’s work - which have been seen, in the main, as reflecting back to us our cultural tastes and desires - intimate that this bit of aesthetic jujitsu, wherein the viewer is empowered into their own artistry, is the progressive end of his enterprise.

Posted by mark at January 26, 2004 11:52 PM

"...if it is mastery we find, we can meet the painting with our own unique genius, in effect becoming the artist." What a joyful statement! You give hope to all of us, who may hesitantly approach a painting, feeling stupid, that the artist is within each of us as we stand before the work and let the birthing evolve.

Posted by: dan turner at February 11, 2004 03:43 PM