One reason pornography is a pleasure enjoyed more in privacy than amongst one’s peers is because one simply can’t get the same thrill in public. Satisfying the old carnal appetites is like being gay in the military; everyone is fine with it so long as it’s not out in the open. Shame seems to be part of the equation, but who exactly is ashamed is less obvious. This is the major hurdle to be overcome for anyone who wants to get more from John Currin’s paintings than perverse libidinal titillation. You can’t be bashful about looking at women diddling women or you may miss the truly impressive feats of Currin’s practice, and that would be a bummer.
That said, John Currin’s current show at Gagosian, New Paintings, looks exactly like a John Currin show. In other words, it’s predictable. He continues to paint with a technical sophistication that is unmatched and extends, with little diversion, his cast of erotic characters. If Currin played baseball he’d be praised for his consistency. But in an art world that champions innovation, Currin’s resistance to change could be read as a failure to progress. This is a critique frequently leveled against fellow Gagosian painter, Mark Tansey, whose rich witticisms dissipated into vacuous optical games, perhaps as consequence of his reluctance to move beyond his stylistic comfort zone. It could just as easily be turned around though. In which case, Currin’s inertia stands in firm opposition to the prevailing standard of progress as an unconditionally good thing. Sometimes stasis can be good too, if the goal is to hold one’s ground against the violent ranks of the enemy’s avant-garde.
Of the thirteen new paintings in Currin’s exhibition the largest is also the most lascivious. “The Women of Franklin Street” is as big as a queen size bed and portrays two women sexually stimulating a third with apparent success. A delicately rendered white porcelain tea set—a standard image for Currin—rests on a round marble table in the foreground. The lucky lady being licked and rubbed has one leg up on the tea table, a posture that collapses the solidarity of the space. Her leg could never reach that table, yet it does without distorting either the leg or the table.
Where Currin does distort the body it’s with a subtlety that tempers his insistence on the exaggeration. For example, “Constance Towers” looks at first like a fairly conservative portrait of the septuagenarian actress. She’s fully clothed; her collared shirt buttoned up to the neck, but a snatch of light silhouettes her midsection suggesting absurdly perky breasts. Like most of Currin’s subjects who aren’t explicitly engaged, Towers appears lost in reverie, as if imagining the 1960s when she stared in more than one B-rate skin flick.
Currin’s portraits may be sourced from pornographic material, but they are not pornographic. He invests them with too much tenderness. There is too much delicacy and the sense of (painterly) touch is just too rich. Pornography is empty and vulgar; it’s nothing but libidinal junk food. By contrast Currin’s work is as lovingly prepared as home cooked meal, even if it’s the same meal he’s served over and again.
(Images: John Currin, Constance Towers, 2009, oil on canvas; The Conservatory, 2010, oil on canvas. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery)