Analysis of the nude and its paradoxes in the work of John Currin. Originally published in Parkett Magazine (September 2002).
People often comment how weird John Currin's nudes are without realizing how weird the nude is itself. You'd think it bizarre if, in the context of an art review, you were to read a description of Currin's penis (which, for the record, can be seen in certain photographs published by Wolfgang Tillmans). And yet when a painter paints a nude woman it seems perfectly natural. If you were to visit Currin's studio and the artist offered to show you his wife in a state of undress the bride stripped bare by her husband, even you'd think him a little strange. But if he only pulled out Rachel with Butterflies (1999), a sweetly painted canvas depicting his wife as a faux-Flemish nude, you wouldn't give it a second thought. In psychology, to disrobe your wife or girlfriend before strangers is a perversion, and yet in art it's a figure study.
Evidently there is a blatant double standard with regard to display of the human body. You can go to a museum fully clothed and look at paintings of naked people, but you can't do the reverse, you can't go to a museum naked and look at paintings of clothed people. What is indecent exposure in society is merely a genre in art. This paradox was of course what made Olympia so shocking to the nineteenth century. Prior to Manet, the nude had been an exercise in self-denial: a naked woman, but at the same time not really a naked woman so they kidded themselves because she was cloaked in the garb of mythology. The nude was not that girl from down the street, she was Venus. But Manet dropped this pretense. Olympia was not Venus, she was that girl from down the street that streetwalker. And the artist, by implication, was suddenly a pimp, a displayer of female goods. Such a conceit was as shocking as the sight of a streaker in a museum, even though all Manet really did was bring out something already there: the nakedness of the nude.
As a genre, then, the nude is weird because it always contains this latent bit of indecent exposure, even perversion. Sometimes it's more obvious, as in the borderline pedophilia of Balthus, other times less. "Cubism," Currin once noted in an interview, "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."1 But if this is true, if the abstractions of Cubism could express a will toward sexual omnipotence, what do the strange nudes of Currin express?
Three Friends (1998) shows two naked women standing and a third at their feet. At first sight, you notice the figural distortions and the general old-master appearance of the painting, a variation on the traditional "three graces" theme. The painting is enigmatic why are these three friends cavorting naked? but not, as was the case with Manet, shocking. Why? Because the conceit of Olympia was to resituate the nude in contemporary reality. The girl was a prostitute, the painter a pimp, the viewer a john. With Currin, however, it's the exact opposite: the nude is put safely back into its art historical tradition. The painter is less pimp than museum guide. Of course Olympia had its visual reference in Titian, and Currin's painting retains the exhibitionism characteristic of the nude as such. But whereas Manet modernized Titian, Currin antiquates his three nude figures, projecting them into a tableau straight out of an art history textbook. It's what the sexual fantasy of a man aroused by the Louvre would look like which is to say that sexuality recedes before referentiality, as though Currin regains a bit of the repression characteristic of the old masters he admires. In other words, weird as it sounds to say it, alongside Manet and Picasso, there's something almost chaste about Currin's nudes. The drive is not for sexual but for stylistic omnipotence, and in consequence a cover is thrown over the nude again, not a mantle of mythology but a virtuosity of technique. It's not the subject who resembles Venus but the painter who resembles the Northern Renaissance.
"To whatever extent painting can be considered a moral act," Currin has said, "it necessarily goes in one of the worst possible directions... You can't make a painting without embracing your own desire as something good."2 No doubt this is especially true of the nude, which owing to the nature of the desires piqued by the sight of a naked body thus becomes the psychopathia sexualis of painting, a compendium of lusts and urges, a public display of personal cravings. Conversely, if there is anything chaste about Currin's nudes, it is precisely because the artist is no longer able to embrace his own desire in this way, at least not unselfconsciously. Bea Arthur Naked (1991), for example, retains the intrinsic perversity of the nude insofar as it suggests a ruthless act of gerontophilia, stripping the clothes off an old lady and displaying her naked to strangers. And yet, if you look at the painting as a kind of bet the artist made with himself, an attempt to create a nude in which there was no longer a direct correspondence between sexual desire and visual representation presuming, of course, that the artist does not harbor a secret fetish for the matronly television star it becomes something else altogether: a moral nude.
Or is it just a joke on the concept of a moral nude? After all, how can chastity, repression, or morality be imputed to a painter who dedicated an entire show to depictions of grossly exaggerated breasts? Is it not an aggressively sexual drive that bloats the boobs in a painting such as Dogwood (1997)? Technically the work is not a nude, and yet the figures give the impression of being more naked with their clothes than most nudes are without. In any event, big breasts here serve the same function as elongated arms, impossibly twisted legs, or other mannerisms of anatomy: they emphasize the artifice, the unreality, of the paintings. They're the hand of the artist displayed at the same time as the female body, like those porn videos where the cameraman films himself participating in the action. They are visual analogues of self-consciousness, not a desire for big breasts but a guy making fun of his desire for big breasts.
Without going so far as to psychoanalyze the artist, it is not difficult to see at least one cause of such self-consciousness. Admit that the artist is a man and that as a man he naturally likes to paint female nudes. On the other hand, he is also a man of his time, and for this reason he cannot fail to acknowledge that women in many cases powerful ones, such as dealers and magazine editors will be the viewers of his paintings. Consequently, the situation confronting the artist is this: how do you paint female nudes palatable to women viewers? Would Picasso have sought sexual omnipotence through Cubism if his dealer were not Mr. but Mrs. Kahnweiler? If you know in advance who constitutes your audience, how can it not influence the way you conceive your paintings? How can it not introduce self-consciousness? In a way, it's a generalization of the delicate situation that must occur when you decide to paint your wife naked. You still have to live with her afterward. What if she doesn't like it? Will she be able to separate her appreciation of your aesthetic goals from her own natural desire to be flatteringly portrayed? What do you opt for artistic integrity? Domestic bliss? Can you have both? Or should you just avoid the whole mess and paint flowers?
Certainly none of this is psychologically explicit, and it would be a great error to imagine Currin scheming about how to get his latest nudie past his wife or dealer. Really it is less a matter of the artist's individual psyche than of the perverse paradoxes of the genre itself for if it was Manet who demonstrated the nakedness of the nude, it is Currin who exhibits its psychopathology, the weirdness of doing in art what you can't always do in reality. No painting points up the discrepancy better than The Wizard (1994), in which a man wearing dark gloves lays his hands on a woman's ample breasts. Both figures close their eyes, as though to acknowledge something already dreamlike about the encounter. Why, though, is this man a wizard? Did he use magic to mesmerize the woman? To strip her naked? To enlarge her breasts? Even if he did, what does he gain? As a visualist, Currin was no doubt concerned with the contrast the black gloves formed against the white breasts, and yet these hand-coverings condemn the wizard to touch without feeling. The wizard is both more and less than a man: more, because he's able to bring his fantasy to life; less, because without sight and touch he's weirdly incapable of enjoying it. And in that sense, the painting could serve as an allegory of the nude as such, since the same holds true of the artist: in the nude, he can realize but not enjoy any fantasy.
1. John Currin: Oeuvres, 1989-1995, exhibition catalogue, Limoges: F.R.A.C. Limousin, 1995, 38.
2. Idem, 40.