The soaps in the Gagosian bathroom come compliments of Agraria. On each bottle, a Victorian wreath surrounds the brand name like a cameo. The smell, a mélange of orange and hotels, reeks of Old World, old people. “The ultimate for those who live and gift luxuriously,” the company advertises. (The set retails for a modest $48.)
John Currin’s latest oil paintings, which basked in the gallery’s 20,000 square feet, chime eerily with Agraria’s aesthetic nostalgia for the lifestyles of the landed gentry. You have to congratulate Currin on his mastery of old-master technique. Gauzy pink fabrics, welcome amounts of flesh you could bite, the just-right crevice of the angled palm, freaky gazes from disconjugate eyes, bodily orbs you could really wrap a hand around—all are executed with confidently little paint, slight enough to preserve the textures of the canvas.
The paint may look thin, but the kink is laid on thick. Currin’s portraits offer us a host of shapely babes, who, seated or reclined in various states of undress, reveal their squishy parts with self-satisfied smiles. The best works make a show of themselves. Two tondi morph their subjects in convex mirrors, producing an analog bulbousness that rivals today’s Photoshop enhancements. Three works superimpose 19th-century figures over 20th-century-style hardcore sex scenes. Maybe, Currin tells us, watching porn produces an afterburn (like staring at a lightbulb), which we can’t help but take to the museum. More like collage than portraiture, these works almost have something to say about the eroticized history of looking, even if it’s just a swaggering “Q.E.D.” Worth the longest inquest is Two Germans (2015). A spritely redhead leans her elbow on a navy marble table as the faces of two older women hover behind her, glazed with a faded barn red. Offering a bold palette and composition, the painting rewards us with a complicated circuit of intergenerational longing.
But is Currin’s dexterous perversity enough to reinvigorate the subject of assorted naked white chicks? “No great home is ever completely decorated until it has its most important accessory—home fragrance.” Agraria knows, as the Victorians insisted, that a bare room suggests poor taste. Often the sad, Victorian truth of contemporary painting is its complicity with conspicuous consumption; Gagosian knows that sex sells. Currin is an old master on trend. His lascivious dive into the aesthetics of European nudes just dials up the vulgarity that was always already there. If we wanted a critique we’d revisit John Berger. What we want from Currin is scopophilic pleasure with a we-know-better wink. At least in Victorian times, women didn’t know their beauty products were made of poisons, and neither did the pharmacists who sold them. Here, Currin’s work hails our worst self: the cynic. Never mind the lead in the cosmetics—Currin’s oils are forever, leeching death sweetly into our pores.