Monday, January 28, 2008

How I learned to stop worrying and love John Currin

This week in The New Yorker (January 28, 2008) Calvin Tomkins writes about John Currin and his pornographic paintings, a new group to be exhibited in London at the Sadie Coles gallery in March. It made me think of Currin’s show around this time last year at Gagosian uptown, which I went to see only at the last minute. While many people I respect, including Peter Schjeldahl, have long thought that Currin is an important artist, I never got it. When once, in conversation, Schjeldahl mentioned how much he admired Currin’s technical ability, I began wonder have we, in the art world, such low expectations that ability comes as a surprise? In the field of illustration it’s a given—you can’t get in the door without it—and to compound the problem for me, Currin’s style has always seemed uncomfortably close to that of illustrator C.F. Payne who, having worked for TIME and Rolling Stone, is now doing the back covers of Reader’s Digest and threatening to turn into the Norman Rockwell of our time.

I believe execution is only one component of painting, and important only to the degree that it supports the content. God knows, painters with great technical ability have been using it in the service of poor image choices since the beginning of painting. Ideally, in painting or any form of art, execution and concept should merge so completely that we’re no longer aware of either; we’re not thinking, “How did he do that?” or “What a cool idea!” but are one with an experience that goes beyond words, beyond thinking.

Therefore Currin’s technique didn’t interest me because his content didn’t interest me; I found it cynical, mannered, and soul-less in the extreme. And when I read that this most recent show was “long on pornography,” getting on the Lex to see it began to seem even more like an effort not worth undertaking. Am I anti-porn? Not necessarily, although it’s not an active part of my life, and whatever prurient interest it may once have held has been dulled by the sheer amount of it in galleries. That, plus the waves of porn-derived art that seem to hit, every few years, the schools in which I occasionally teach, have left me pretty porn-ed out. I feel about porn the way I do about Christmas music, which is that over-exposure has rendered me incapable of mustering any response whatsoever.

So the Currin exhibition had three strikes against it—besides being Currin, it was uptown and pornographic—until I read a short panegyric by Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, accompanied by a tiny reproduction of a straight-forward portrait of the artist’s young son, one of two such paintings in the exhibition, which Schjeldahl described simply as “ravishing.” It was enough to get me on the subway.

And it was worth it. The two small paintings, interspersed inexplicably among graphically sexual ones (since I don’t believe in psychoanalyzing artists or attempting to guess their intentions, I’m not going to comment on this bizarre aspect of the exhibition), were painted with all the attention and tenderness of Chardin, and indescribably beautiful. Taking up the challenge in the artists’ adage that the hardest subjects to paint are sunsets and babies, Currin’s skill enabled him to avoid the obvious trap of sentimentality; far from sappy, these paintings are lovingly observed and alive with all of the aching delight of parenthood. They were enough to make me swallow my words and admit to myself (and now, finally, to Schjeldahl) that Currin is, or rather can be, a wonderful painter.
Time changes things in weird ways, so now the truly radical act is to paint something close to your heart—in this case, your infant son. I’m reminded of a conversation between Gerhard Richter and Rob Storr, the curator of Richter’s 2002 exhibition at MoMA, as it was recorded in Art in America:

RS: There is another body of work which is perhaps more surprising than the landscapes in certain ways—the paintings you made in 1995 of your wife and young child. These are very unexpected paintings.

GR: Maybe because there are so many of them.

RS: Both the number and the subject.

GR: The subject? Because there are children in the painting?

RS: Yes

GR: I can’t quite understand why this should be so extraordinary.

RS: It’s unexpected because it seems very private.

GR: Very private, yes. The only difference is that I have become more shameless. I am not as ashamed anymore, and I am not afraid anymore. My fears have abated somewhat. I don’t feel as if I have to behave properly. Somehow I finally understood that I am allowed to do what I want.

I’m not suggesting that everyone go out and start painting their kids—that would be awful. But I am saying that forms of art other than those recognized by the academicized avant garde may still be relevant, and that there are more possibilities for content than that derived from the media, a trend that has gone on at least twenty-five years too long. It just happens that I’m reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, and came across a quote from composer Morton Feldman who said something like, “What looks radical may be conservative and what seems conservative may be radical” (I’ve lost the exact reference and will correct it when I find it). And this paragraph (p.354):

“Everything begins in mystique and ends in politics,” wrote the French poet Charles Peguy in 1910. Morton Feldman, the maverick modernist who loved Sibelius, applied this epigram to twentieth century music, describing how grandiose ideas are made ordinary with the passage of time and become fodder for a power struggle among ideologues and pedants. “Unfortunately for most people who pursue art, ideas become their opium,” Feldman said, “There’s no security to be one’s self.”


Civic Center said...

Very nice essay. And Schjeldahl is the ONLY art critic I read with the kind of pleasure you get from being educated and turned onto something new from a voice you trust.

David said...

Currin's distortions always seemed gratuitous and sad - sad because he seemed to need to subvert his skills to be successful.The porn images seemed to only emphasize this. They are truly nasty images. The ability to produce such disturbing images may be taken for a kind of power, and it is that, but what's the point of John Currin? The child paintings are lovely though and you wonder what he might do after them. Schjeldahl came down a little hard on Phillip Pearlstein recently, which I appreciated, and Currin and Pearlstein make an interesting study taken together. They both seem trapped by their technical skills, although there are generational differences playing out. Anyway, thanks for your essay and the opportunity to think about some interesting painters.

Carol Diehl said...

Thank you, David, for this important distinction—that “the ability to produce such disturbing images may be taken for a kind of power…” Too often the power of sensationalism is confused with the power of art, the latter being so much harder to achieve. And your comparison of Currin and Pearlstein—an artist whose appeal I’ve never understood—is apt. I must have missed that Schjeldahl piece, will look it up.

Anonymous said...

I have never understood the contemporary art world's investment in upsetting, ugly and disturbing. Those are not difficult powers to come by. Stephen King can do it. A crackhead smearing feces on a wall can do it. Roadkill can do it.

Besides, why put such a value in producing this reaction in people? Isn't it infinitely more important to make people feel something better and more complicated than fear and revulsion?

And don't nobody start waving Bosch in my face. Bosch and the like help us face darkness in order to overcome it and move beyond it, not to wallow in it indefinitely.

Those kid portraits are wonderful. To think that an artist capable of this work produced all those... Currinisms... Shame on you, Currin, to pretend to be an asshole when you've been a decent person all along. What the world does not need is another asshole.

Carol Diehl said...

Thank you!

Jacob said...

I like it - there's something classic about the look of those. The detail is stunning, but they have that vibe that you see in 15th century art, and you just don't get that anymore.