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John Currin: Avant-Garde and Kitsch

The essential power of American art star John Currin’s paintings, currently on view in a mid-sized retrospective at Montreal’s DHC/ART, is manifold. They leer, cajole and seduce. They crave to be looked at in a manner similar to the way their figures look out from the canvas—with simultaneous mortification and fascination.

There are many stories here, then, none so engaging, perhaps, as Currin’s own. A Yale-educated, Larry Gagosian–represented gadabout, Currin is passionately engaged with life and art and, with converse insouciance, the contemporary art world that so lavishly buttresses him. As reiterated in an introductory text by DHC/ART curator John Zeppetelli, who has never before programmed a painting show at the space, Currin is unfashionable by design. He paints what the avant-garde establishment has, for decades, and with disdain and/or condescending curiosity, labelled kitsch: colourful, mannerist, grotesque renderings of, to a significant extent, bourgeois subjects. The work has been called misanthropic. In the tradition of Velázquez and Goya, it is precisely those whom Currin is thought to be mocking who are able to purchase his work. Indeed, the presence of money in the show is not limited to Currin’s arresting, Laura-Ashley-on-mushrooms vignettes; he is one of the world’s most expensive living painters. The cumulative value of the works at DHC/ART alone reaches into the tens of millions of dollars. At times, with the presence of extra-attentive guards, one feels as if one is walking among Vermeers, which, given Currin’s technical affinity with Dutch masters, feels eerily, exhilaratingly apropos.

It is thus hardly right to call Currin’s work repellent; it is fundamentally alluring, with an unabashed commitment to the aesthetics of excess. Like so many Gagosian artists, what makes Currin anathema to the more Calvinist strain of contemporary art-lovers puts him at the centre of the fashion world. Enter Rachel Feinstein, his wife of 14 years, with whom he appears prolifically in society party shots. Feinstein, a sculptor, is perhaps best known for her affiliation with designer Marc Jacobs, who based a collection on her and made her a model. (She has subsequently walked the runway for Tom Ford.) She is also Currin’s muse, his first and only life model, and his face, in many respects: she speaks as eloquently about his work as her own. The meeting of the two—such a power couple that a recent New York Times article likened them to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor—is one of the many fabulist aspects of the Currin dynasty. The story goes that, in 1994, he was told of a woman who was having an exhibition for which she was living in a gingerbread house for six weeks. She was also told about him, as she was rumoured to look like the women he painted; he went and, Pygmalion-like, saw his creations made flesh.

Such anecdotes are by no means imperative for viewing Currin’s DHC/ART survey, though they do underscore how vital the notion of life imitating art is for the artist. One should, in fact, leave the show in a tailspin about the matter. The show runs chronologically up through the four boxy storeys of the gallery’s main building. On the first, three portraits of older women stick out for their aggressive irreverence. 1991’s Bea Arthur Naked is most ostentatious; the late actor is nude from the waist up, well-endowed with her Maude haircut against a background of mustard-pistachio. She is not a burlesque, but some kind of glorious, impossibly pulchritudinous representative of 1970s American-liberal values. In dialogue are Brown Lady, from the same year, and the well-known Ms. Omni from 1993, depictions of society matrons who have made themselves into steely, opulent edifices. For the former, Currin applies the eponymous colour to create a sepia mask. For the latter, he uses what has become his trademark: a precision surrealism, inspired by Parmigianino, Francis Picabia and Walt Disney, in which the figure is made more lifelike, in empathic and psychological terms, by distorted flourishes.

Currin’s world, of course, is full of people who themselves employ exaggerations of personal effects; we, the viewers, know this well, too, as members of the ultra-self-conscious and perpetually self-deconstructing milieu of the privileged, postmodern West. So it is that Currin’s best paintings have the authenticity of waking dreams: they are the mirages we see every day, pathological creations of busy contemporary minds for which the image, both alluring and ludicrous, is everything. Zeppetelli has selected several of Currin’s paintings that portray this pathology in a manner reminiscent of the greatly influential Philip Guston—The Berliner, The Invalids, The Old Guy, all from the mid-90s and on the second floor of DHC/ART. Here, figures are flatter, uglier, rendered more gesturally in impasto. The works are experiments, many failed, and take up too much space in the show. Yet they stand fascinatingly amid the emergent studies of Feinstein on the same floor: Sno-Bo and Honeymoon Nude, both anticipating one of Currin’s first masterworks, Stamford After Brunch, which depicts three women clinking martini glasses in a generic New England upper-class abode. One of the figure’s buttocks juts out like a misplaced pillow, suggesting a tumour, cellulite or, more abstractly, something that, despite all intents and purposes, cannot be hidden.

Feinstein, as Zeppetelli further demonstrates on the third floor, has had a profound effect on Currin’s work. With her comes more romanticism, crisper painting and an obsessive focus on the enchantments of the body. Feinstein seems to exemplify metamorphosis for Currin: she can be, by turns, gorgeous and hideous, waiflike and fecund. She looks out, and demands to be looked at. In the monumental Thanksgiving, lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery courtesy of Marc Jacobs, she is triplicated in an echt-American Rockwell parody. She is the Greco-Roman graces, and also the fates—a plenty both inspirational and devouring. Women who are not Feinstein get more of the brunt of Currin’s dissecting gaze. The fabulous figure of Bent, for instance, is a soap-opera villainess: witchy and desexed in a shocking blue dress, trying mawkishly to imitate a trellis of roses.

Currin’s pornographic paintings, which constitute much of his work from the last half of the 2000s, deserve their placement at the summit of the survey, on DHC/ART’s fourth floor. Zeppetelli has made his selections carefully, notably pairing two paintings, Deauville and Rotterdam. The first is harmonious in its representation of mutual masturbation, its comely figures’ arms crossed in a symmetrical x shape; the second is all askew dynamism, its May-December tryst a barrage of jewels, torn panties, high heels and black lace. One feels both inside and outside these paintings. Currin intends this, not only because he bases many of his scenes on outdated Danish porn, but because this is how sexuality in art functions, never reflecting reality but rather its evocations, its mentalities. For Currin, as for us, the image must become its own form of ravishment.

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