2004-01-16 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
by Susan Hartenstein
From The Artists Studio Rockaway Artists Alliance by Susan Hartenstein


Stamford After-Brunch,  2000 Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm) Collection of Andrea Rosen Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photograph by Fred Scruton. (c) John Currin.Stamford After-Brunch, 2000 Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 in. (101.6 x 152.4 cm) Collection of Andrea Rosen Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. Photograph by Fred Scruton. (c) John Currin.

Using language of Renaissance masters, 18 th and 19th century European painters, populist American artists, images common to modern advertising and pop culture and putting these through the filter of often grotesque exaggeration and sexuality, John
Currin is a contemporary artist both lauded and vilified. The Whitney Museum of American Art is presenting a solo show of this provocative painter’s work through February 22. John Currin, the artist’s first solo show in the United States, presents 45 of his oil paintings from the last 10 years. They trace his development from single figures to idealized nudes to recent social scenarios.

Currin exposes the grotesque and the strange in images that, at first glance, would seem icons of normalcy. In Stamford After-Brunch, 1999 the three young suburban housewives could easily inhabit the world of Norman Rockwell. But wait. Their legs are way too skinny to be normal and the butt of one of these seemingly attractive women is too fat and chunky. She wears an oddly tied "schmatah" on her head. Their expressions are faintly sinister and they smoke cigars. The artist jars our complacency and our admiration of such icons and makes us consider if these reinterpreted images are symbols and not just single incidents. One looks at them and thinks, something is wrong here.

Disquieting early portraits include women against plain, unadorned backgrounds. One senses something is wrong in these "high school yearbook photos," whether in a half-meant smile or the isolation of the body in an emotionally disconnected background or in the exaggeration of physical features. All is not as peaceful and demur as it should be.

Currin’s collection of older women seem to comment on women "of an age" and their attempts to appear younger. Girl in Bed, 1993 seems not a girl at all, but an aging former girl of fading youth, perhaps near death. In his aging women, disturbing incongruities create a feeling of disquiet as in the "portrait" of Bea Arthur in the nude and Big Lady, 1993 with a social matron face and huge breasts barely contained under a tight sweater. Women with enormous breasts reoccur with great frequency in Currin’s paintings. Hence, he has been accused of being a sexist.

More recent paintings include compositions of one, two or three figures and single portraits, sometimes with bizarre "adornments." His large-breasted figures are frequently placed in provocative relation to each other. At times he juxtaposes elements of sexuality and deformity, causing each to invade the other, as in The Invalids, 1997 and the single figure of The Cripple, 1997. Some of his figures seem, strangely, as much feminine as they are masculine. All along, Currin references images and constructs from other eras and reinvents them. In this reinvention he jars our sensibilities and complacencies.

For more information about the Whitney Museum, log onto www.whitney.org.


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