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.
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.