in A Can of Worms | 03 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 27

A Can of Worms

John Currin

in A Can of Worms | 03 SEP 96

There are people you hate on sight, for no real reason. A similar feeling of sudden repulsion can be brought into play by works of art. Take the woman portrayed in John Currin's Guitar Lesson (1993). You know the type: a bitter mouth (the sign of constant whining or sarcasm), plucked eyebrows and dowdy brown skirt, that utter lack of humour or charity, the manner of a retired Gestapo commandant... It can mean only one thing: she is a music teacher - a social pariah whose only

pleasure lies in torturing other people's children. With opaque eyes like buttons in a face that could be tactfully described as jolie-laide, she is gazing distractedly into the middle distance. But 'gazing' is not the word. Her eyeballs are not reflecting, not acting as windows to the soul, but simply existing. Looking left, out of the picture, she seems to recognise nothing. Is she concentrating, perhaps, on that guitar she is holding? If she were, she would realise that it has no strings. Not only that: it is rendered in a quite different way from the rest of the painting - flat, uninflected, diagrammatic... When incompatible languages collide, the result is mutually destructive. Calling it 'bad' will not help or hinder. Say instead that it serves to hold the work open, to make it unreadable by usual methods and keep it permanently unresolved. Modernist strategies - flatness, abstraction - clash with the rest of the painting to make it a nonsense. Placing her hands over the invisible strings, she has tried to play an artist's model, though obviously she is too tetchy ever to have succeeded. (Even more vexing is the absence of expression on her face, and the fact that the black of her eyes matches the black of the circular void in the centre of the guitar.)

The result is embarrassing but also infuriating: a low trick played on us as well as on her. But also on women in general. The nudes of 1994 are costive fare, aligned as they are with some altogether older fashion, when voluptuousness was confused with rolls of unhealthy fat, when flesh became buttery and unpleasant and babies were deemed to be the picture of health only if they reached a certain level of obesity. This in itself is a matter of taste. A more serious objection is that Currin's cheesecake models look vacuous and foolish. Do we decide that his methods effect a kind of debasement? Or are these pictures concerned with pornography and its conception? For the Renaissance equation of beauty with truth evaporated long ago, to be replaced with an endless, self-perpetuating loop of fantasy, a loop which may be impossible to escape.

Lack of realism is pandemic in American life. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to the wife of a certain film star-turned-president of the United States of America, Ms. Omni (1993) seems all angles and tension, her lined face, scrawny neck and arthritic hands straining to pass for a fashion statement and her face looking uncannily masculine. In a painting named Big Lady (1993), a head belonging to the same older, female, upper-class American facial type is set on a bulkier base. For 'big' refers to her more than ample breasts, which resemble unhealthy growths. There is no satire here - as in his Nadine Gordimer (1992), in which the famous author's head is shown as a vast balloon attached to a tiny body, the focus of humour is not behaviour or morals but the human body itself and our approach to it. If the style moves into strange territories, the reasons are clear: the period of the pastiche is the period in which the pastiched fashion prevailed.

Of course, Currin is examining personal relations: our image of ourselves and that which others have of us. And though the deformities - or what we see as such - escape the notice of the subjects of the paintings, a certain sense of malaise suggests that they make themselves felt by subtler means. Women are shown alone in bed, with only their heads visible above the sheets. Yet their eyes are open and they are staring, sometimes at photographs on the wall. Though couples are depicted together, their level of interaction is hard to assess. Usually there are two readings of the relations between the figures. With a look of adoration, an under-aged bimbo gazes, enraptured, at a man who has ceased to be young but is fighting every step of the way. It could be her father, but we are inclined to think otherwise. Dressed in that hectic style that passes for chic among the over-70s - loud cravats and hair dyed bright yellow - he looks as if he is wearing make-up. The title, The Never-Ending Story (1994) is double-edged. Isn't it marvellous that true love can succeed, even between ages as different as these? Try telling the girl's mother that, or, for that matter, the old man's grown-up children.

How people picture themselves is one theme of Currin's painting. After menopause, for example, women start again, some with such attitude that it seems churlish to remind them that they once subscribed to a different set of definitions. The portrait of Bea Arthur from the comedy series The Golden Girls is shocking because we would prefer not to be reminded that her body is so traditionally feminine when her manner is so ostensibly, successfully masculine. 'I'm interested in a still image,' Currin has said, 'I like things to be still.' If we want to know where we stand, however, Currin is not the man to tell us, despite his stated preference for the 'undynamic'. When dynamism enters the paintings, as in a confusion of bodies on a cliff - a mêlée featuring an older man and a pack of young girls - a fluffy outline and a rococo colour scheme are brought into play to imply memory or fantasy, or more probably a mixture of the two. But fluff is not Currin's preference. Instead, he favours the sepulchral.

There is a problem with old people in the Western world. It has only just occurred to us that they keep getting older. Their maintenance, their health, their presence as a social group with voting power and time on their hands has not been recognised as a potential problem until relatively recently. That they date and re-marry disturbs every stereotype we cherish. Breaking stereotypes is Currin's particular obsession. His Sociology Professor (1992) resembles a monster from a horror movie, while Mary O'Connel (1989) looks less like a schoolgirl than Damien from The Omen. A portrait called The Moved Over Lady (1991) bears a remarkable resemblance to Julie Andrews. Straight, cropped hair, a boyish demeanour and loose clothing - so loose in this case that the further the eye descends the more she looks like a sack of potatoes - are coupled with an unfocused expression best described as mock identification. It is that look of recognition which accompanies the approach of a person who seems familiar but whose exact identity has eluded you: welcoming but vague. That she is not situated in the centre of the composition only serves to increase the disconcerting atmosphere of a meeting that is and is not taking place. As portraiture, this breaks every rule in the book. As an exercise in bad manners it seems exemplary.

The kind of mutation through which Currin puts his figures only increases an awareness of ideals, so is he developing into a satirist after all? Perhaps not yet: satire includes a moral dimension, acting as a form of correction, but the correction that occurs in these paintings is formal. The shift of forces matters in The Moved Over Lady only because it serves to dramatise the centre of the composition, and centrality matters for Currin. In interviews he has talked about the impacted quality of the centre of the canvas. Could this explain the impacted feeling of his subject-matter too: people or parts of people more or less superimposed? And the strangeness of the sexuality of his characters? Despite the attention lavished on painting them, Currin cares little for his subjects, often rendering them as grotesque as possible. But perhaps the argument is not possible if such emotionally loaded terms are employed. After all, a grotesque is an odd and ugly thing: a ragbag, a collage of disparate elements which have been flung together and which have congealed, a sad-silly amalgam we love and hate in equal measure.

Another group of paintings features new and old. Two works, The Old Guy (1994) and The New Guy (1994) show the same elderly figure - the first in a plain room, his hair an unconvincing russet and his beard unkempt and grey, the second sitting at a table with candelabra and wearing a ridiculous blue and white shirt and a pink tie. The rheumy eyes fail to make proper contact. Happy Lovers (1993), Lovers in the Country (1993) and The Never-Ending Story (1994) all feature couples, one old and masculine - that is to say bearded or smoking a pipe - the other young and female, in other words breathless, nubile, innocent, overawed, devoted. In all these cases satire has reached a crescendo. In Lovers in the Country, the old man's enormous pipe casts a faintly obscene shadow on his partner's dress. But by this time the faces of Currin's figures have become 'badly' painted, like dolls to be dressed and changed into different outfits, the subject matter, or what passes for subject matter, has reached stasis and the emphasis is placed solely on poses and faces. It is at this point that everything begins to shift into reverse. Poorly defined or flat areas of colour appear, such as the sweaters of the happy lovers; hectic brushwork unites disparate features, like the ears, nose and hair of the rubicund old gentleman in The Never-Ending Story. In two paintings from 1994, undertones of fetishism are powerful. The Purification shows a view over the shoulder of a woman who is stroking the beard of what has now become little more than an effigy: a yellow-bearded, bright red-haired, thick-lipped doll with black holes for eyes; holes around which linear marks have been made, like a child's drawing of the sun. Totally dehumanised, the male father-figure has been reduced to a figure of fun. Gradually, Currin's extravagant caricature has shifted to higher ground: an examination of 'love' itself, the permanence of its conventions and the mystery of relationships.

Perhaps loathing of the human body, male and female, forced Currin eventually to assume the role of satirist. Satirists tend to be old-fashioned, intent on resisting change. Currin is no exception, except for one principle: that male and female are one and the same, or at least practically indistinguishable. This is either a belief of his own or a convention accepted for the fun of it. 'Realist drag', he calls his paintings, and the description can be interpreted in various ways: as parody of realism in painting; as a version of cross-dressing, ever present as an undertone in his work; or a combination of the two. Currin has a tendency to push human beings to a point at which they either lose their sex or their identity. One strange painting, The Wizard (1994) pushes his vocabulary to the point of near obscenity. A vast, naked, nubile woman is confronted by a slim figure with black rubber gloves. As he lays hands on her mighty breasts, both close their eyes as if in mute worship. Yet a closer look reveals that on the lids of his closed eyes, other eyes appear, looking straight at her, while the shadow of his head on her cleavage forms the image of her buttocks or perhaps her pubis. By now, people have become dolls, there to pose and be posed, and the paintings themselves take as their subject matter human relations at their most abject - an equivalent of huddling together for warmth - but also their most rarefied and heightened: a kind of mystic baptism. The repeated scenario has made its point: a satire on sexual role-playing, its conventions and traditions and the respectful attention they command in art. Other targets exist, notably Modernism, a new guy replacing the old. The final effect is destructive, grotesque, nihilistic. What other painter in the world gives the impression that every one of the characters he depicts is sightless?

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