As evidenced by the painstaking technical refinements in the 13 oil paintings from the past two years on view in this recent exhibition, John Currin dug deep into his ever-burgeoning bag of painterly tricks to gain new fans and impress old ones. In the end, he may have wound up pleasing only himself, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Previously, he aspired to the technical polish of Lucas Cranach and the exuberant eroticism of François Boucher. In the best works in this show, Currin channels Ingres and late Renoir. The overall feel of the exhibition is mellower than in earlier outings by the 48-year-old Colorado-born artist, and the distortions of the figures are less pronounced.
Not entirely absent is Currin's cast of grotesque characters, as if borrowed from a particularly extreme TV show, but they are a little less freakish this time. The protagonist of The Scream, for instance, a rather unadorned portrait of a woman with a bouffant hairdo, looks like a hysterical suburban housewife. Currin skewers Edvard Munch with this deadpan ode to 1960s-style existential angst. The kinky sexual situations and casual homosexual innuendo expected in Currin's work are in play again, too. One of the largest paintings (88 by 68 inches), The Women of Franklin Street, perhaps refers to a Manhattan neighborhood of artists' lofts where, in Currin's imagination at least, scenes like this—of a capricious lesbian ménage à trois—take place on a daily basis. Gay men are not forgotten. The absurd Hot Pants recalls a painting by Paul Cadmus, as two middle-age gentlemen stand before a full-length mirror in silly-looking outfits of short pants, suit jackets and knee socks. One, a dresser or tailor, bends over slightly to measure the backside of his client, presumably to make another pair of hot pants. Among the best paintings, The Dogwood Thieves is an unusually airy and luminous scene of two young women embracing. Billowing clouds in the cerulean sky contrast with the bright red ribbons flowing from one woman's straw hat. Brilliant passages like these show Currin in command of his craft. Inexplicably—and unfortunately—the artist chose for the work an ostentatious and hideous gilt frame that served only to fight the image and push it toward the realm of kitsch.
Big Hands is a tender portrait of a young, buxom blonde. Sensitively rendered, she would be totally credible as a charming seductress were it not for her muscular truck driver's arms and hands. A full-length portrait, Old Fur, shows a reclining female nude with a rather handsome face. She has opened her fur coat to reveal a vast, fleshy bodyscape that nearly fills the composition. The exaggerated voluptuousness of the figure at first appears a bit cheesy, like calendar art from the 1950s. But the body, as well as the coat lining and background drapery whose pink-orange iridescence recalls certain paintings by Veronese, are so well realized and lovingly painted that Currin thwarts any judgment of the work as mere cynical titillation.
In this canvas, and in this transitional show as a whole, Currin has decisively shifted his emphasis from provocation to painterly finesse.
Photo: John Currin: Hot Pants, 2010, oil on canvas, 78 by 60 inches; at Gagosian.