Analysis of the "weirdness," sexism, and painterly virtuosity of John Currin's painting. Originally published in John Currin: Oeuvres (Frac Limousin & ICA London, 1995). An excerpt from this text appears in Terry R. Myers, ed., Painting (Documents of Contemporary Art), Whitechapel Art Gallery & The MIT Press, 2011.
"Nowadays," Céline once wrote, "people are so bored that artists have been posted everywhere as a precaution."1 And in recent years, one could add, artists are learning how to cure boredom not in the big top but the freak show. There's a general perception that art no longer has a vanguard, merely a weird-guard caught in a nuclear proliferation of the outré. It's a phenomenon John Currin derides he mentions in the following interview his suspicion of artists who have to "drip paint on a canvas with something like a severed moose head in an effort to make their work weirder and weirder" and, in some sense, his paintings are as traditional as could be: figurative, formally sophisticated, technically virtuosic. On the other hand, either in spite of or because of his willingness to work right at the heart of painting tradition, Currin comes off as the weirdest of the weird. The blank, deadpan gaze of his early paintings of young girls has slowly given way to a psychologically disturbing world not of freaks or mutants, but of seemingly "normal" men and women. Has he discovered a maxim comparable to the old saw about truth being stranger than fiction that the center is weirder than the periphery?
Every attempt at enlightenment is simultaneously an act of repression. In the grossest or most paradoxical case, enlightenment is a repression of ignorance and perhaps the bliss that it brings. In other instances, however, "enlightenment" is no longer defined epistemologically as an advance in knowledge or understanding, but is identified with a sort of moral conduct. The "enlightened" male may or may not understand women any better than his chauvinist predecessors, but it is presumed that he will treat them better. This is certainly not a bad thing, although it often has the secondary effect of repressing relatively natural desires. People expect, for instance, that an Ivy-educated SWM like Currin would only paint women out of a desire to critique stereotypes, to deconstruct the male-dominated tradition of which he is a part: maybe his paintings of young girls in high school yearbook pictures were ironic, distant, a gambit on the very impropriety of a macho guy painting vulnerable girls. But Currin followed those up with paintings of older women, then paintings of women in bed as if deliberately leading one to ask, where else would a straight guy want to depict women than in bed? Lately, he's even started to do nudes along the lines of 1950s and 60s sexploitation pics. How much credit can you advance him as a feminist in wolf's clothes before you see what's really happening: it's the return of the repressed. Why would an Ivy-educated SWM (Straight White Male) like Currin want to paint women? Well, why wouldn't he?
If a painting is a self-contained world, it is governed by a tyranny of one. "The subject of a painting is always the author, the artist," Currin says. His work is not a bastardized form of portraiture, as has sometimes been said, for the very reason that he seeks to offset all empiricism and suspension or repression of disbelief with the a priori knowledge that a given work inevitably "represents" the fortes, the foibles, and the fables of its creator. Perhaps Currin hopes to point this up when he blatantly flaunts his brush-penis in paintings of women, but it's equally evident when the brush goes soft in images of men. Currin has depicted increasing numbers of men in recent years, and typically they are deliberately? more badly painted, frail, wispy, fragile. Nearly every one sports a beard, as if that one prop of masculinity were all that distinguished them from androgynous women. The drama of gender with no sermons, no agitprop is explicit there in the brush flooded with desire before desiderata but reluctant, even squeamish before everything else. A very recent painting, Entertaining Mr. Acker Bilk, features a booming perspective up a man's clothed crotch, and you can imagine Currin sort of making a bet with himself about his ability to paint it. Currin describes the painting as a "realist drag," implying: (1) "realism" is an illusionist drag act concealing an author or artist; (2) drag is not a game of make-believe, but a reality in and of itself (implying that the figures in the painting and, by extension, people in general are not a "man" and a "woman" but two people of indeterminate sex acting like men and women); (3) to paint like a hard-core realist is a drag, since you have to paint things you may not desire.
To see in Currin's work a return of the repressed a noxious phrase, admittedly, often sloppily used, especially in art criticism is not to take a psychological stab at whatever goes on in the artist's head, but simply to describe something that happens in his paintings. Only boomerangs enter into repression, and in every one of Currin's works you can see them flying back out: the desire to think with your dick, to upend rather than suspend disbelief, to paint like old masters, to wear retro clothes, to indulge in color schemes from dimly remembered living rooms of the past. Does all this make Currin a weird painter? Certainly the return of the repressed causes discomfort and anxiety, something which Currin plays up with a knowing and very subtle use of unsettling mannerist strategies (perspectives distorted, proportions distended, flesh tones accentuated with stealthy strokes of green or red, false shadows misaligned with deceptive lights). Maybe this makes us feel weird inexplicably weird but it doesn't make Currin weird. What it means for him is this: sometimes a return is a step back, and a repression a holding back, but together they form a double negative that is to say, an affirmation. It is the ability to create without restraints. Is that so weird?
JC: The subject of a painting is always the author, the artist. You can only make an illusion that it's about something other than that. I think that's what the function of representation is: to give a painting the illusion of a subject. In the end, that's why I started seeing no reason for me to paint abstractly. Some people would say, "Abstraction is as much a representation as anything else." But I wanted it to be more simple-minded. Why can't I just be forthright about saying that I'm the author, that I'm the one who determined it?
KS: Are you saying that, since you think the subjectivity of an artist is an intrinsic part of a painting, there's no reason to paint abstractly anymore?
JC: No, I would never say that. I would never say that I'm on this "team," that I'm on the "team" of figurative painters. I never felt a responsibility to revive or uphold the continuing validity of representation, of representational painting. I do find myself looking at old art, but it's because those are the best pictures. I can see that there may be a historical reason to paint like Richter or someone, but I think there's always a perverse reason behind every one of those logical, historical justifications. For example, Cubism was perverse when Picasso first did it. People justify it by talking about looking at an object from three sides and so on, but it always seemed to me much more about seeing the ass and the breast at the same time. That's basically what Picasso used it for, and even after he gave up Cubism, he still habitually drew the ass crack, the pussy and the breast on the front. The metaphor was not about time travel, it was about total sexual domination.
When I painted those pictures of older women, partly it was a bit of a joke on the idea of the subversive nude. How many times have you read that Manet's nudes look back at you with confidence and assertiveness? People never know how to separate the picture from what the painting is, so they look at it and think, "Oh, she's looking at you in this assertive way." I always think it's exactly the opposite. It's as if Manet is claiming even that, even their self-assertion he's taking away, even their ability to look back at you he has claimed with his brush. A lot of painters are facile, like John Singer Sargent, but certain of them transform it into a real metaphor. With Manet, it's not just facility, it's a means of showing that he's utterly ruthless in what he claims as his own creation. That's why his flower paintings are upsetting to look at, too. Even the beauty of the flowers was claimed, as if he were claiming God's very own creation.
To whatever extent painting can be considered a moral act, it necessarily goes in one of the worst possible directions. As an author, you have a weird, guilty authority over everything you create. You can't make a painting without embracing your own desire as something good. You can find all kinds of examples of this with the Expressionists. There's a perverse aspect to their saying "I made it this way, I made the shadow on her face green." When you choose distorted or unnatural colors, it's not lyrical or metaphorical so much as it's infantile or atavistic. A green shadow is not "minty," but a flaunting of the idea that you are free to do something. That's why I've always thought of myself as an expressionist artist. I think in terms of expressionism because it's involved with dumb ideas, really stupid ideas; and even if my strategy would seem to be mapped-out, some people would even say "smart," that's not what I mean when I say "stupid." I'm talking about stupid urges and stupid desires, things that don't involve any irony or anything intellectual.
KS: Is your work ironic?
JC: Maybe I'm a little bit ironical about the right-wing associations that come with talking about painting in terms of domination or authority. But by playing a gambit on that in my paintings, I think it sort of cancels itself out. If I make a sexist depiction of a woman, somehow it becomes a double negative to what painting was doing all along. One of my main missions, though, has been to try to get my work to be less ironic. I think about things that are not ironic, like sexual desire, fear of death, basic things that are by no means new concepts. A semiotician would say that the entire world is ironic, that it's about understanding where the misapplied labels are, that the very idea of a label describing something is a lie anyway. It seems to me that great art always makes you feel like there isn't a misapplied label.
This is all clichéd, but clichés themselves are sort of a poor man's form of great art. They're a recurring truth. Maybe really great art becomes cliché, too. Jackson Pollock had an amazing way of putting on paint in the freshest, most un-clichéd way, but his greatest achievement was to use that to arrive at clichés. I'm tired of people trying so hard to avoid clichés that they drip paint on a canvas with something like a severed moose head in an effort to make their work weirder and weirder. I felt like I wanted to quit walking around the perimeter, I wanted to slog through the center, get all fucked-up and dirty. I would rather that my work turn into a cliché than be a kind of artfully dodged, ironic critique. I'd rather that my work be truly a cliché than a critique of clichés. Ultimately, I think what I do is find a cliché and try to believe in it, try to get to where I don't laugh at it.
In art, problems are rarely solved, but often abandoned. An entire set of important questions suffered the same death and diaspora as the pre-World War II generation of art historians who tended to pose them: What is the function of the nude? Is it possible to speak of national identity in painting? Is it important to have an individual style? Is there such a thing as a classic work of art? Is a good painter someone who imbues his work with moral lessons, or is he someone who simply paints well? If the return of the repressed has an unclogging or unblocking effect on the artist, it also has a sort of bulimic effect on his discipline or medium: when Currin sticks his brush down the throat of art history tickling the Rococo with a feather it regurgitates problems long gone and presumed dead.
For instance, Currin tends to produce pictures with balanced or centered compositions ironically, a proclivity nowhere more evident than in the 1991 painting, The Moved Over Lady, where the very displacement of the figure serves to highlight the importance of the center of the canvas: if this is the painting in which the figure is moved over to the left, the figures in other works must be in their proper places. The exception proves the rule. Even when Currin began to paint couples, they tended to coalesce in a sort of black hole in the center of the canvas. "One of the reasons I was doing those people crushed together or hugging," Currin says, "was that it was the dumbest way of making them back into one thing." Another 1991 painting, Jamita, conflated the artist's parents (Jim and Anita) into one disturbing figure, ostensibly a middle-aged female; while we all may owe our existence to our parents' coming together, in Jamita they're literally melded together, as though the center of the painting exerted such gravity that it was impossible to paint two figures there without having them collapse into one another.
However, the full significance of this proclivity for the center is not realized if it's taken apart from the compositional paradigm predominant in contemporary painting. This paradigm no doubt derives from the combined influences of collage and abstraction: one is free to utilize the entire surface of a canvas, to place important events in out-of-the-way corners, to layer one thing on top of another, to place disparate things side by side, and so on. In fact, this tendency has become perfectly natural: no one feels the need to make heroic pronouncements about disjunction or alienation, no one bothers to systematize differential relationships in composition as did Eisenstein for filmic montage (metric montage, rhythmic montage, tonal montage, etc.). The modern movements at the beginning of the century tore up the unity that had prevailed in painting since the Renaissance, and today's artists are able to enjoy the shreds.
The prevalence of this laissez-faire compositional style which old-school art historians would have called "decadent" for its subjugation of whole to part points up the bold and deliberate character of Currin's attempt to grapple with the center, with structure, with classic form, but it also raises another question: if this sense of fragmentation has become "natural," then to whom is it natural? To artists? To viewers? To Americans? In the interview that follows, Currin wonders if it's an oxymoron to be an American painter. It's a dilemma strung not just between nationalities, but between forms between the part and the whole, the fragment and the solid. "Les Européens," writes Gilles Deleuze, "ont un sens inné de la totalité organique, ou de la composition, mais ils doivent acquérir le sens du fragment... Les Américains, au contraire: ils ont un sens naturel du fragment, et ce qu'ils doivent conquérir, c'est le sentiment de la totalité, de la belle composition."2 America is literally the mosaic nation, the fragment comes easily and naturally. "Cut-ups make explicit a psychosensory process that is going on all the time anyway," William Burroughs explains. "I was sitting in a lunchroom in New York having my doughnuts and coffee. I was thinking that one does feel a little boxed in in New York, like living in a series of boxes. I looked out the window and there was a great big Yale truck. That's cut-up a juxtaposition of what's happening outside and what you're thinking of."3 So is it an oxymoron to be an American painter? It is if you're working against the fragment, the collage, the periphery. It is if the paradigms by which you understand painting derive largely from old masters.
Is there an American style of painting? Is there a Currinesque style that departs from it? This is a difficult question, since Currin obviously has a hallmark style, and yet the art to which it is most often compared in spite of the manifold influences of Courbet, Manet, Boucher, Fragonard, et al is thrift-store painting, i.e. anonymous kitsch. It's a paradox: how can a painting drop so many names and yet still inspire a sense of the nameless? Nowhere is this paradox better embodied than in the nudes Currin has been painting since 1994: the images themselves recall the sort of girly pictures normally found on the back of playing cards, and yet they're executed with incredible formal sophistication. However, this sophistication in itself contains a secondary conundrum: although it is possible to see traces of Courbet or whomever in his painting, Currin does not "appropriate" styles so much as subsume them into a new sort of weirdly individual (i.e. Currinesque) generality. A comment written in one of his sketchbooks may elucidate the point: "Do you take meaning out of its narrative receptacle, or do you embed it in a narrative? This is the function of style, to give the illusion of meaninglessness to meaning." The statement presupposes that art or expression or something is already meaningful, but that style Currin's style pulls it in the direction of meaninglessness, namelessness, blankness even. In an age when style is generally equated with eccentricity, it may be that Currin is eccentrically moving in the opposite direction, toward generality, anonymity toward the cliché.
Though Currin's style may radiate namelessness or blankness, it does not strive after timelessness. "A big part of form," he says, "is to store information and time, to pack time forward and backward into a moment. I think that's what De Chirico means by metaphysical: nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. Any form is like a primitive computer, it's a way of storing memory." In this sense, Currin's work discards the old notion that style is the passport to the timeless or the "classic" (e.g. "The word 'style' in its generic sense indicates a special and superior quality in a work of art: the quality, and peculiarly eternal value, that allows it to escape the bondage of time.")4 For Currin, style is neither timeless nor timely he often derides the tendency to see art as a mere reflection of the era in which it was produced. When he describes a painting hanging in his studio, he says "I've been trying to make the shadows transparent and full of color to keep the time moving around, but only so that it will circulate in the four corners of the painting. I want it to be a repeating melody that can just go around and around like a jingle." In other words, a painting sets up its own inner temporal rhythm and thus forms a discontinuous pocket in the continuum of duration or "real" time. It is neither timeless nor timely but untimely. Perhaps this is the true key to a "classic" work. Logically, if it were timeless we would be unable to enter into it, since we are temporal beings and we could no more enter into the eternal than into a religious deity or platonic ideal . If it were timely, the work would require so much prior knowledge of its epoch that to enter into it becomes the province of historians. But if it's untimely, containing its own time as an eddy maintains its own distinct form and force in a greater stream or flow, then it is no more difficult to enter into the work than it is to pick up a certain rhythm in music. What is a classic? It is a work in which, to use Hamlet's formula, the time is out of joint.
To have a style in literature, says Proust, is to write in a kind of foreign language; for Currin, style may not be a foreign tongue but a refusal to speak altogether. He describes the blank backgrounds of his earlier paintings precisely as a sort of stubborn silence: "I think about the monochrome backgrounds being like the pissed-off husband. They're like Brice Marden paintings, a constipated sort of masculinity that says, 'I won't lose my temper. I won't say anything. There's nothing wrong.' That's what monochrome painting is to me: stingy." In fact, the evolution of his entire oeuvre might be best characterized as dumb and dumber as increasing in both muteness and a certain sort of stupidity. If the series of young girls and older women bordered on a sort of ironic conceptual art, Currin's work is increasingly eschewing irony in favor of sincerity, increasingly forsaking concepts in favor of desires. His painting leaves garrulity to writers, ratiocination to philosophers, and ethics to wet blankets. Perhaps it's the weirdest aspect of his work: the struggle not to speak about painting anymore, but to let painting "speak" through each individual canvas. In the end, it may be the medium itself which refuses to be repressed, and Currin may be no more than the mouth through which it spits up its return.
JC: I think I have accepted a little more that I am a mannerist artist, as opposed to an ironic artist. It's not a conceptual leap, it's a stylistic problem. When I was painting those young girls, I began more conceptually: how do I pose the idea of doing this? Now the problem is stylistic. Style is a passage between what you tend to think about and the easiest way to think about it, to represent it; it's a language. It's also a physical constraint, how you can fit together what you're good at and what you're not good at. If you don't want to experience any obstacles in your work, you develop a style that includes them. They used to talk about this sort of thing in the thirties, "You have to find your individual style." Maybe it's true. Look at André Derain. He's sort of a tragic figure to me, someone who was incredibly good but never got anywhere. He could do all sorts of things, but never really did figure out how he wanted to paint.
KS: Do you have a style?
JC: Right now I'm conscious of style, but I think artists get better when they're unaware of a larger body of what they do when they don't really know how they made an entire painting. Can a style you're conscious of really be your style? I don't think I have a genuine style, which troubles me a lot. Maybe it's the style of an anonymous painting. People say my work has obvious thrift-store qualities, and yet it's not that. My work is not naive in that way. I think more about how easy master works are to do, how it's simple to make a painting look a certain way. Once you know how to do it, master paintings are as easy to do as awful fuck-it paintings. (Fuck-it paintings I do in like one day, I just mix up colors, outline form instead of round it.... I have another show coming up, I have to make a lot more paintings, I'll start panicking, I'll get angry at everybody for expecting me to do a show, I'll get all worried about what people think and whether I'll finally get a review in the New York Times, then I'll think: fuck everybody, just fuck it, I'll do what I want to do.)
KS: Boucher, Fragonard, Tiepolo, Courbet, Manet you seem to maintain more of a dialogue with old masters than with your peers.
JC: I often find good compositions in advertising that seems like working from nature to me but I've never been able to make a painting where I draw the composition from an old master. Classical structure can be arrived at naively. It can go stale and bad and you get Bouguereau or Francis Ford Coppola. It can be overdone, but I also think you can arrive at it by being alive. It wouldn't be worth anything if you couldn't. It's different from historicism, where the style is one big reference. Classic structure is solidity. If you believe that life itself can follow certain structures, why wouldn't you want to make your work that way? I've always liked things that pretend they're sensationalistic entertainment yet have a hidden or deeper structure something that's absolutely mediocre but perfect, like a soft rock song that's perfectly memorable, that has this incredibly long life and persistence, that's so average but crystalline. It's the pop ideal.
I like the idea of trying to make a picture solid, keep it from changing, having the couple be an undynamic situation. It's almost a form of male hysteria to make everything solid, like the woman cleans and the man goes down into his basement woodshop to make another birdhouse. The categories are fixed. The man has to be authoritative and the woman subservient the roles lend the painting solidity, even visual solidity. It's painting the couple as Mont Ste. Victoire: it will always be there, just like mom and dad.
I like things to be still, I'm interested in a still image. I don't have a good imagination for scenarios, but I have a good imagination for what something would look like what it would look like in a certain kind of light and so on. My dreams, for instance, almost never involve interesting scenarios like everybody else's seem to. Most of my dreams involve pretty much something like a hillside with houses on it, walking up that hillside. In the scariest dream I ever had, I was riding a bike with my brother over these short, small hills. He got to the top of the hill and looked back at me and it gave me the most horrifying, terrifying feeling of silence and aloneness; the clouds had stopped moving in the sky and the stillness was terrifying. It was a little bit like The Omen, where Damien can kill somebody just by looking at them intently. That to me is what painting can do, create a feeling like that or a joyous feeling like that. Life presents itself to me in those kinds of terms: staring at women, staring at sky, staring at something.
There's a pleasure in freezing movement, a voyeuristic pleasure in being able to see one moment and look at it forever, but lately I've been interested in painting things that have movement. The reason I've been looking at Tiepolo is to find something ridiculously turbulent and yet solid, secretly very solid. I used to hate Tiepolo, I would get depressed when I'd get to the top of the stairs at the Metropolitan Museum and there would be all of his paintings. But now there are things I rip off from them, like making a painting that tries too hard to be interesting spatially. I've never been into exciting pictures, I've always been into really still pictures, but lately I've been interested in failing to make something exciting. Like this painting here, something's happening but it's already so dreary compared to tv or a movie. There's no big whoop about making the illusion of movement on a flat surface when you've seen a billion tv shows.
No one wants to be a painter anymore. Everyone's probably going to film school: when they should have been painters, they become shitty filmmakers instead. Maybe it's an oxymoron to be an American painter, maybe there's really no such thing, there are American illustrators like Edward Hopper, but really no American painters. Maybe painting was always based on the European conceit of individuality and solitariness, the lone individual heroically facing up to his canvas, whereas in America you're only solitary in your car. It's much more about movement, so I guess movies are the natural thing for Americans. The time when painting had a monopoly on visual culture is over, it will never have that kind of monopoly again. True, the world is being atomized, six families don't rule the world anymore, but a lot of the ways we think about painting refer to that time when it was so dominant. We have to think of other metaphors for it now.
1. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, trans. R. Manheim (London: Calder, 1988), 312.
2. Gilles Deleuze, "Walt Whitman," Critique et clinique (Paris: Minuit, 1993), 75.
3. Interview with Burroughs in William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, The Third Mind (New York: Viking, 1978), 4-5.
4. Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art, trans. Hogan and Kubler (New York: Zone, 1989 ), 44.