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John Currin’s new show draws a sharp distinction between sex and sexiness. There is more explicit erotic action on view than in any images hitherto by this avid courter of controversy, and there is sexy paintwork to boot. But, instructively, you don’t find both in the same places.
His hard-core images are delivered with a ho-hum perfunctoriness that often enervates his surfaces. But rare and felicitious glimpses into genuine painterly lust for life emerge in his rendering — of all subjects — of crockery. In terms of pictorial energy, his orgies are inert, while his still lifes are animate.
This is his first show with his new (since 2004) dealer, Gagosian, and while it doesn’t have the narrative thrust of some of his earlier shows at Andrea Rosen, it is as forcefully themed as his blue period. There are several scenes of group sex, coyly titled after Northern European cities: “Rotterdam,” “Copenhagen,” “Malmo.” These seem drawn from vintage 1970s porn, judging by the hairdos and ABBA-esque expressions of climax. They are relatively small pictures with a sketchy brushiness that signals urgency and fumble, but such sexiness is delivered in quotation marks, and does not offer actual painterly excitement.
It is hard not to draw a connection between the stereotypical Nordic attitude toward sex and Mr. Currin’s paintings. The liberal attitudes of sometime Calvinist countries toward sexuality has a kind of cool, sex-is-good-for-you efficiency, in which naughtiness is sanitized. In Mr. Currin’s new work, there is a similarly prescriptive sense that it is time for erotics — that it was the way for his mannerist figuration to go.
“Heritage Hall” (2003–06), a canvas of more than 3 by 4 feet, offers a crowded arrangement of china and glassware on a neutral brown ground. In contrast to his flaccid three-ways, the painting enjoys all the qualities you’d expect from a depiction of sexual frenzy: rippling, glistening surfaces; awkward abutments, and evidence of the painter’s greedy, fascinated observation.
What gives the work its charge, I suspect, is that these were objects the artist needed to observe and capture in his own way. There was no point in forcing the kinds of elongations and distortions he often favors in rendering the figure onto soup tureens, teapots, and gravy boats. There might be some kind of satire of bourgeois taste in his choosing these objects, appealing to the same rococo zeitgeist as Lisa Yuskavage, Karen Kilimnik, and Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette.” But once he is engaged in dealing with the roundness of the china, the way light catches its grooves, and the rendering of pictures within pictures in the plate decorations, his painting follows the dictates of seeing, not distorting.
A controlled, super-knowing nastiness used to typify Mr. Currin’s bodies — women with sagging, almost tumorinflicted posteriors, absurd basketball busts, and protruding, bony hip joints — and still comes across in pictures like “Patch and Pearl” (2006), which indicates pregnancy as a malformation in the artist’s worldview. But there is a different dynamic between Mr. Currin and chinaware. If anything, the elusive, recalcitrant objects inflict a certain cruelty on the artist trying to fix them to the canvas while getting across their homey American rococo.
As if the artist himself is unsure as to which is sexier, flesh or porcelain, there is one painting that offers both: In “Tolbrook” (2006), a skinny woman lowers her white briefs toward a set up of creamier-toned crockery on the floor as she smirks to herself. My libido votes for the china, with honorable mention to the cloth. Mr. Currin’s fleshtones can be creepily lifeless.
The distinction between sex as a motif and sexiness in delivery reflects a larger split within Mr. Currin’s modus operandi between image-making and the act of painting. He is an artist of strongly illustrational bent. Champions and detractors alike have compared him to Norman Rockwell, with whom he shares a genius for the telling anecdote. “2070” (2005) presumably imagines his now-infant son, portrayed elsewhere in the show, in 64 years’ time, as a tea-sipping gent in his dotage in a wicker rocker. This is pure Rockwell: that his dress is so Victorian, incidentally, prophesies conservatism triumphant.
The moral difference between Rockwell and Mr. Currin tells more about their respective times than individual preferences: Rockwell appealed to nostalgic, patriotic middle-class sentiment. Mr. Currin’s popularity, though very broad for an art-world artist, is for an audience hungry for racier, more sophisticated amusements. What unites the two is the trenchantly safe tastes to which they appeal. They both rely on received skills and traditional-looking techniques that impress by familiarity. While each strikes out with inventive, genuinely memorable images, Rockwell’s appeal was to humanism, Mr. Currin’s, to a low-octane sadism.
Mr. Currin likes to depict transgression, but he himself is not transgressive. The time in which using “old master” techniques was inherently subversive passed by before Mr. Currin was in short trousers. It is true that retardaire painting is one of those recurring avant-garde strategies that each generation thinks, or pretends, it is doing for the first time. But by the moment Mr. Currin emerged in the early 1990s, not only were Picabia’s tongue in cheek “bad”old master paintings of the 1940s firmly canonized, but the 1980s had been a golden age of wasmsbecome isms.
An artist shouldn’t be blamed for the excesses of his supporters — which are now fiscal as well as critical, with the whole show of 20 canvases selling out before opening, reportedly for more than half a million dollars each. But because Mr. Currin attracts such improbable plaudits for his technique, genuine aficionados of classical painting feel obliged to overreact. He is routinely compared to mannerist and baroque masters of the 16th and 17th centuries, whereas the more telling point of reference is to mid-20th-century how-to manuals. He is certainly skilled at painting superficially fresh, dutifully covered pictures. His vaginas are dispatched with the slippery bravura of Dutch masters tackling oysters. But what can’t easily be pastiched is the awkward energy that comes from genuine painterly invention and curiosity.
A useful comparison can be drawn between Mr. Currin and the Neue-Sachlichkeit painters on view at the Metropolitan Museum’s “Glitter and Doom” exhibition. For artists like Otto Dix and Christian Schad, a revival of German styles at a time of national crisis and renewal had very specific purpose. And the medieval meticulousness of their renderings of flesh were means both to excoriate what they saw as a corrupt society and make people more conscious of bodily vitality in the wake of war. There is no such purpose for Mr. Currin in either his painterliness or his historicism. He deploys technique to impress, and needs paint, with its elasticity and ambiguity, to distort in ways that aren’t possible (or easy- Hans Bellmer shows it is possible) in photography.
Dix, even more than Rockwell, offers an instructive career comparison with Mr. Currin. After the Nazis took over, the sometime social castigator retreated to fastidious pastoral fantasies, religious allegories, and loving realist family portraits. In Mr. Currin’s new work, luridly mannerist bodily distortion is on the retreat. There is still cruel caricature in many of the nameless faces, but increasingly Mr. Currin is drawn to subjects like his wife, his son, and friends whom he probably doesn’t feel licensed or inspired to make grotesque. These subjects, lovingly observed, are worked with genuine, unironic emphathy. But unlike Dix, conservatism in Mr. Currin’s case might be a braver, better way to go.
If you didn’t know the track record of the artist and came across one of his tender, invested paintings of his son in a contemporary realist gallery like Henoch in Chelsea, you’d stop and admire it for an unproblematically traditionalist moment. It is hard to believe that his market lies in such a direction, but unaffected observational realism is Mr. Currin’s area of painterly and spiritual growth.