Show and Tell: John Currin at Gagosian Beverly Hills
Dispatch from Los Angeles
John Currin at Gagosian Beverly Hills
February 19 to April 11, 2015
456 North Camden Drive (between S. Santa Monica Boulevard and Brighton Way)
Beverly Hills, 310 271 9400
John Currin’s current solo show at Gagosian Beverly Hills will not disappoint devotees of his signature style. The artist’s sensuous play between lush fabrics, fruit and the female form — while exceedingly literal — is nonetheless striking and seductive. Culling inspiration from Italian Mannerism and the art of the Northern Renaissance, Currin recasts the classical image of the female nude, limning and embracing its current cultural significance in tandem with its historical precedent. Gender and sexuality become the subjects of Currin’s paintings, and while his relationship to art of the 15th century has been discussed at length, rarely is his work regarded in politically salient terms.
With the exception of three paintings executed in 2013, each work in the exhibition was painted within the last three months. The luscious 2015 work Maenads depicts an alabaster-skinned, auburn-haired sitter in Currin’s Mannerist style. A pink gossamer top traces her breasts and a silk scarf is draped listlessly over her lap. Two ripe apples placed at eye-level mirror her rounded breasts and belly, further emphasizing the figure’s sensuous form. In the background lie two additional women with similar coloring, one with legs splayed open and the other reaching over to touch her. However any contact between the two is obscured by the foreground sitter’s raised knee. The show’s earlier works exhibit slightly more explicit instances of sexuality, integrating what appears to be ‘70s-era pornography as background imagery. However, it serves to mention that the naughtiest bits are always concealed: no genitals and certainly no penetrative sex. So why, after having depicted explicit sex acts for years, does John Currin offer us these references to sexuality without the titillation?
The Storm (2013) similarly alludes to what appears to be an explicit sex act between a man and two women, but Currin’s languid golden-haired nude obscured our view. In this image, like the others in the show, paint is applied thinly and sparingly, the texture of the canvas visible behind his rendered satins and furs. Bust in a Convex Mirror and Nude in a Convex Mirror, both from 2015, present a refracted view of Currin’s female forms, allowing for the delectation of his figures’ breasts and buttocks without interference.
Lemons and Lace (2015) remained with me long after leaving the exhibition. A vaguely historical pastiche, the female figure bares a striking resemblance to Currin’s wife and frequent sitter, Rachel Feinstein. Posed as an odalisque, his subject is dressed in lingerie that refers in equal parts 17th century vestments and to 1970s adult films, all the way down to her thigh-high stockings and shimmering gold mules. In the background, a snuffed-out candelabra and pieces of fruit beg to be analyzed in art-historical terms — do these props allude to fertility? Integrity? Death? Plays with translucence and opacity abound, a useful metaphor in understanding these new works.
The thread unifying these paintings is a deliberate attention to what’s exposed and what is concealed. The images are PG-13 alternatives to the artist’s previous X-rated works, and by adhering to socially prescribed limits of probity, Currin further demarcates those boundaries, naturalized for centuries via the art-historical canon.
I want to make very clear what I understand as a distinction between the operations of Currin’s nudes and those of other contemporary artists. Now perhaps cliché, Classical and Modern artists have portrayed the pliant and available female body for centuries. Understanding this cultural and historical signification as implicit in any image of a white female nude, artists of Currin’s epoch have subverted the classic trope as a means of illustrating the restrictive politics of gender and visuality. Take for instance the arresting and corpulent nude portraits of Jenny Saville, tellingly referred to as “grotesque” by art critics and historians. Or perhaps Rineke Dijkstra’s nude mothers, photographed shortly after giving birth, stretchmarks and bloated bellies proudly on display. Even pornography, as employed by Ghada Amer, serves to represent the female body as imbued with agency, deliberate and purposeful. Currin’s return to classical tropes then brings ideological markers of taste and class into sharp relief, naturalized for centuries and only very recently challenged by postmodern theory and feminist politics. And, as in the classical tradition, the sensuousness of Currin’s forms is heightened by their relative modesty.