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John Currin
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Wikipedia About John Currin

John Currin (born 1962) is an American painter. He is best known for satirical figurative paintings which deal with provocative sexual and social themes in a technically skillful manner. His work shows a wide range of influences, including sources as diverse as the Renaissance, popular culture magazines, and contemporary fashion models. He often distorts or exaggerates the erotic forms of the female body. Full Wikipedia Article

essay John Currin, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Few could have guessed that the return of painting in the early 1990s would take such a Baroque dimension as it did in John Currin’s work. Or should we say Mannerist? Emerging as one of the young-generation painters whose main concern lies in the human form, Currin could very well be the most sophisticated of the group—which also includes Elizabeth Peyton and Lisa Yuskavage—in his realistic rendition of the human anatomy. Realism is not what is at stake here, however. Female bodies are rendered both veristically corporeal and unsettlingly uncanny: nubile, rosy-cheeked girls endowed with impossibly large breasts; older urbane women with zero body fat and brutally short haircuts; and nude women, classically alluring and impenetrable as the biblical or mythological icons in Northern Renaissance paintings. In reaction to the growing lexicon of strange feminine typology in Currin’s paintings, charges of misogyny have frequently surfaced. At the same time, the artist’s brushwork has grown more sensitive and visceral. Critics who initially read his works as intentionally “bad” or “kitschy,” moved progressively to describing them as masterful.

In Park City Grill (2000), the central figure is a young woman who seems to be having a jolly good time with a male companion. Long-stemmed glasses nestle in their hands. Her wavy, shoulder-length platinum-blonde hair is elegantly feathered to reveal a broad forehead and a long neck—not a graceful, swanlike neck but an oddly robust one, grafted on a body too slight to prop it up. Her shoulder jutting out of the armhole of her sleeveless dress is bony, and the arm extending from it appears emaciated and is elongated out of proportion. The uneven, ashen skin tone of the man’s face contrasts with the disconcerting pallor of her flesh.

For many, Currin’s figures evoke immediate references to names in art-history textbooks. The woman in this painting is reminiscent of Parmigianino’s Mannerist masterpiece Madonna with a Long Neck (1534). There is also a certain allegorical tone that gives his works an air of classicism and suggests that they are morality tales whose codes are not entirely clear. On another level, leapfrogging back to presecular, classical times for artistic references signifies, for Currin, a political gesture. He has expressed an antipathy toward the ideological cast of his education, in which he felt subjected to the modernist privileging of abstraction and the postmodernist declaration of “the death of the author.” Pronouncing that modernism and abstraction do not have authority over him was “like not feeling guilty about not going to church anymore.”1 While this striking simile suggests a sense of creative liberation, his stance on image-making is anything but simple, as revealed in another statement: “There is still this feeling of shame in the late twentieth century about painting pictures, visual pleasure; these are still off limits.”2 Currin’s paintings may have audaciously stepped back into the realm of pleasure. Nevertheless, they also let beholders know that the guilt and shame associated with image-making and viewership are deeply entrenched proscriptions in our visual culture. The complexity of our responses to his paintings, then, may run far deeper than the surfaces of his canvases.

  1. Quoted in Alison M. Gingeras, “John Currin,” in Alison M. Gingeras, ed., “Dear Painter, paint me …”: Painting the Figure since Late Picabia, exh. cat. (Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2002), 75.

  2. Ibid., 77.

Chong, Doryun. “John Currin.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center