John Currin’s current show at Gagosian NY finally takes on hard core porn and treats it to gentle caricature in drawing, a broad brushed scrub in painting. After dwelling on feminine sexuality in most other ways over the past fifteen years or so, there is something almost inevitable about the move, perhaps even desperate. The fact that the Gagosian website has replaced the reproduction of one of the key works, a large composition of group sex, only underlines how contentious and explicit the content remains. Yet Currin now feels confident enough or compelled enough to force the issue.
The idea seems to be that porn will draw novel aspects from traditional painting and caricature, re-engage them, while painting and caricature may elevate even as base a genre as pornography; highlight fresh aspects of its usual means – photography. For his admirers, porn is made more human and humorous (erotic) while painting and caricature take on new relevance and resonance to photography. For his detractors, the balance fails and porn wins. Pedestrian if competent painting and restrained caricature are only degraded for the exercise. Painting and caricature are sold too cheaply or pull their punches; porn respected too much.
In fact the divided response to Currin’s approach has been there from the outset, with his emergence in the early 90s. All of his work summons a similar equation or balancing act, between the resources of painting and their application to broader categories of picture – genres – is a useful term. Some of this discussion also arises in Post 5. Cartoons and other illustrations as much as photography are the object of Currin’s early work and the free-ranging blend there intrigued as many people as it appalled. And while Currin is refreshingly un-programmatic (for a Yale graduate) nevertheless there has been a discernible and steady narrowing of focus over the past ten years or so, a greater reliance on showy technical expertise and a loss of some of the friction, élan and humour. The paintings go to greater lengths to persuade the viewer to take them seriously, yet maintain their business is mockery. As noted, it is a delicate balance.
Early works such as Black drew on a standard ID photo or bust format, used in passports or high school yearbooks, reduced the sitter to a conforming doll, isolated token. Others rendered a woman in bed as a tidy fairytale illustration, puppet-like or pathetic, while portraits of middle-class matrons or professional ladies, including actual persons such as Nadine Gordimer and Bea Arthur matched mannerist exaggeration against uneasy expressions of confidence and vulnerability. Currin similarly dealt with older couples before turning to an older man/younger woman pairing and more extreme caricature.
Crucially, the figures themselves not only become grotesque, but their drawing and modelling seem to court incompetence. Currin is not content here with simply incorporating caricature,as occurs in say a Peter Saul or a Peter Howson, but with making these aspects uncomfortable with other parts of the picture, pressing differences until parts are either ‘poor’ or ‘bad’ or belong to different styles, as in The Wizard (1994). The mix serves either to make the genre that of the naïve or amateur artist, or to point to a difference between styles and caricature, to make the painting about style and caricature, and grant painting a more ambitious project. At least, this would be the view of a Currin fan. To a foe he is simply unwilling or unable to properly engage with caricature, pastiche or parody; too lazy or skittish, content with cheap shots.
Subsequently, Currin seems to concede some of the criticism. He moves on to more obvious or comfortable exaggeration, with the series of women with enormous breasts and impasto faces,pictures of clumsy caricature, but not clumsy pictures of caricature. These are followed by exercises in female bodily proportions such as The Pink Tree (1999), with their laboured nods to the Northern Renaissance tradition, contrasted with contemporary faces. Currin then switches to more relaxed brushwork and scenes of contemporary domestic life, such as Park City Grill (2000) and Thanksgiving (2005) but essentially the greater the finesse, the milder the joke.It would seem to be a project of diminishing returns. Hence the temptation to ramp up the genre to something like hard-core porn, in order to test his virtuosity; extract some spark. How well he succeeds depends how discriminating one is about pornography, caricature and painting. But if Currin seems to settle for less these days, at least he leaves plenty for others.