May 1, 2017
A tender embrace of art history might not be the first quality that springs to mind when it comes to the artist John Currin, whose controversial, carefully executed paintings are more frequently singled out for the way they exaggerate and warp standards of beauty to unsettling new proportions—a practice that has landed him both criticism and praise. But it’s Currin’s technical mastery of centuries of Western painting, in combination with his intentional distortions, that makes his work so magnetic.
Rather than trying to reject the past, Currin chooses to celebrate its forms and tropes even while he’s inflating modern standards of beauty almost to the bursting point. He paints women as idealized virginal graces, sex objects, stylish old dowagers, and exaggerated parodies; they touch themselves, they measure each other’s ballooning breasts, they drape their porcelain-white bodies in furs and jewels. But despite the explicit content of many of Currin’s works, he does not think that the pornographic is what makes them transgressive. As modern viewers, we are hardly shocked by the erotic in art, yet Currin’s paintings still make us uneasy. What is it about these smiling feminine prototypes that raises the hairs on the back of the neck? According to Currin, the secret is simple: “bad drawing.”
However, there is scant evidence of that at Frieze New York, where hundreds of drawings by Currin cover the walls of Gagosian’s booth, framed and hung salon style, offering viewers the maximum amount of visual stimuli possible. On view for the very first time, the drawings come from sketchbooks and notepads that span the artist’s career, serving as an illuminating and surprising index of his oeuvre. For one, they reveal that many of Currin’s paintings begin as jokes—what if a woman had one large breast at the center of her chest? What if hitchhikers wore the transparent fabrics that Lucas Cranach’s sixteenth-century nudes hold delicately in front of their bodies? What if present-day women bore the impossibly rounded fertile stomachs of Jan van Eyck’s maidens beneath their belted trousers, making it look as if they’ve swallowed an exercise ball?
While many of the drawings are studies for paintings, they also have a spirit of their own—one that’s entirely different from Currin’s illusionistic oil paintings in both execution and function. Currin considers drawing to be “a wellspring of energy,” an impulse of thought to hand that, more often than not, doesn’t lead into the creation of a future painting. Many of the drawings are more like doodles than drafts—something he does, he says candidly, to procrastinate. At the same time, though, the beginnings of his thought process can be clearly glimpsed in them—especially the surreal sense of humor for which he’s so well known. Each sketch attests to Currin’s pursuit of a careful balance of opposites—high and low, past and present, sacred and profane. Porn and Parmigianino, bleach blondes and Botticelli—Currin brings them together as if they’d been kindred spirits all along.
The earliest drawings on view include stylized renderings of horses and girls with feathered hair and long eyelashes. These, Currin explains, “were a reaction against the forced masculinity of my earlier abstract paintings, which were my attempt to be a tortured artist.” The horses, many titled Beth, are an exploration of innocence, “the kind of images high school girls might have made.” Drawings from the early 1990s depict individuals and couples, from a realistic portrait of Currin’s wife, artist Rachel Feinstein, to caricature-like sketches of women with enlarged heads, which also feature in paintings from the same time period. In one study, Currin experiments with the composition for Painters (1999), in which one man flirtatiously paints another’s nose.
In watercolor, gouache, charcoal, ink, and pencil, the drawings show varied levels of detail. Some are rough outlines, while others, like a detail of a baby nursing, incorporate more dimensionality, as Currin thinks about the final effect of the paintings to follow. Interestingly, the few studies for paintings evoke feelings that don’t necessarily make their way into the finished canvases. A drawing from 2002, for example, shows two men from behind, in a boat struggling with a net. In simple outlines without details or shading, the men feel alien, the words “Deepwater Fishing” scrawled across the top of the page, while in the painting Fishermen (2002), their strong backs are heroic and solid. And a red chalk study for Nude in a Convex Mirror (2015) is rendered softly to the point of near abstraction, rather than magnified and precise.
Currin’s process is similar to that of the Mannerist painters of the Italian High Renaissance, combining pictorial trends like elongated necks and fingers, or overly rounded eyes and mouths. In isolation, these effects are almost humorous, but through repetition and context, each joke becomes subsumed as part of a more complex and affecting image. Several studies for Thanksgiving (2003), now in the Tate collection in London, illustrate this process. One early drawing depicts a trio of cartoon-like figures, later drawings center on a Feinstein-like woman standing with her mouth poised in a perfect circle like the cherubim in a Renaissance painting, making it seem as if she is screaming or singing. Finally, in the painting, she is opening her mouth to take a bite of a Thanksgiving meal. The three women in the painting, according to Currin, ended up becoming an allegory of Feinstein’s pregnancy (artfully alluded to by the uncooked turkey in the foreground).
Through his drawings, Currin maps out the ideas that have permeated art for hundreds of years: morality, sexuality, privilege, identity, and tradition (as well as the physicality of life and death) that become more difficult to consider separately when they come together in his beautifully executed, richly colored canvases. But if Currin’s paintings demonstrate that figural painting still has plenty to express about art and the human condition, his drawings confirm that the thought process behind it all is just as curious, witty, and at times perverse as one suspects it must be.
John Currin’s drawings will be on view at Frieze New York this week. He will be signing books at the Gagosian Shop on Tuesday, May 2, 6–8PM.