Sadie Coles HQ, London, UK
What do ‘70s pornography and Old Masters have in common? Quite a lot, according to John Currin’s new show at Sadie Coles. Currin has long been known for art historical paraphrasing, from Cranach-inspired swollen bellied nudes to ostentatiously bad paintings à la Picabia. However, based on vintage porn, his most recent work – explicit images of couples intertwined, tongues flicking and hands reaching – is certainly less high-minded.
The link to the Old Masters is signaled by such carefully rendered details as a thin gold chain, a layered necklace, and a strand of pearls – all glint and gleam as though borrowed from a Titian Venus. These details betray a possible ulterior motive, in that Currin seems to use pornography as a modern-day excuse for an age-old artistic exercise. Like Lucretia or the Rape of the Sabine Women before, pornography provides a contemporary pretext for depicting naked figures cavorting, limbs intertwined and bodies overlapping. Two seemingly out-of-place paintings confirm Currin’s commitment to traditional modes of formal experimentation: Monroeville (2008), a still life of Delft china, and Rosebush (2003), a flower painting.
But Currin’s pornography, like his figurative style, is dated. Beyond the obvious historical cues – tacky floral wallpaper and feathered hair – the paintings evoke the way film was shot in the ‘70s, replicating the soft focus and muted coloration of their source material. His women are not bottle blondes in Lucite heels, hairless and surgically enhanced; they’re ordinary.
So the series becomes polemical. Currin rejects the sleek commercialism of today’s art and today’s pornography, preferring to nostalgically represent the pasty and imperfect. Though easily dismissed as a shock tactic, it’s a serious statement from an artist best known for low-brow satire and high camp caricature.
Currin first gained notoriety in 1992 when Village Voice critic Kim Levin urged readers to boycott his first solo show. Levin dismissed the show as misogynistic, citing the press release in which Currin referred to his own work as, ‘paintings of old women at the end of their cycle of sexual potential […] between the object of desire and the object of loathing.’ Currin fanned the flames of controversy with his next series, turning from sagging socialites to women with absurdly inflated chests, their faces done in thick impasto.
Currin’s conservative style and snide provocations sent him on a soaring trajectory, culminating in a 2003 mid-career survey (shown at Whitney Museum, the Serpentine, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago). The retrospective was followed by a long dry spell, which only ended when a friend fortuitously gave him a cartoon torn from the pages of a magazine. What struck Currin, however, was the porn on the other side.
Despite their Old Master-style grandeur and meticulous execution, Currin’s new paintings are not arousing. They’ve been relegated to a sterile white cube, a space which demands the kind of quiet contemplation usually reserved for reverential objects. (Sadie Coles is far from sordid.) Of course, Currin, whose reputation as a jokey satirist is well-established, knows this. He must have smirked knowing gallery-goers would stand around, serious, brow furrowed, pondering these pictures – of legs spread, undergarments pushed down, mouths gaping mid-moan.
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