Do you want number one hater?

“John Currin—At this point, I'm not even sure why I'm paying attention to John Currin and what, I, personally, could gain from investigating his work extensively. Part of the reason I'm trying to persist with this is because I'm a little mystified by all the champagne corks popping in his direction, kind of how you were annoyed with the critical reception of LiT. It's not that John Currin is a bad painter (though some of the paintings in the retrospective are actively, pointedly bad), it's just that he's obviously not any sort of genius or anyone with a startling talent, who we'll be talking about in 50 years. Hopefully.

Trying to temper my reputation as a "hater", I was going to begin my review by listing the things about his work that I was impressed by, be it the excellent trompe l'oeil ass in the first room, the brushwork on the dress in "Heartless", or the lovely raw turkey in one of the latest paintings. I was going to mention the fact that a retrospective like this in the equivalent of a Greatest Hits album and is thus devoid of all context. I could see myself, I think, being more sympathetic to Currin if I had seen each individual show in progression, but unfortunately that kind of historical analysis is forever barred for me. I was going to say how that I think Currin is probably a really smart guy in a lot of ways, probably too smart to be a painter, but...fuck it.

I'm wading into dangerous territory when I say I dislike Currin's painting because it's too "conceptual" - in a few different ways. First, and most simply, too much of the meaning of Currin's paintings is loaded into his droll titles - "Cripple," "Heartless," "Two Guys," "Stamford After-Brunch." I alluded to this briefly when discussing Laura Owens, but the use of titles as punchlines just irks me. It's trivial. Anyone can master that kind of easy irony, and coupled with the utter lack of empathy in his paintings it makes for a shallow experience. (though I did laugh when I read "cripple" off the wall-card.) Not that there's anything wrong with cheap thrills or cheap laughs, but don't call it art. And like you said, being a "painter" means you've chosen a non-verbal means of expressing yourself (ugh, hate that phrase). Why resort to words to clarify your ideas? Doesn' that mean, in some sense, that the painting has failed?

The more complicated problem is that while it's surely impossible to make a painting that doesn't point to other paintings or engage art history in anyway, I don't think there's any point in making a painting where that seems to be the subject. I used to love this kind of allusiveness for the sake of allusiveness, and indeed even thought of it as the height of intellectual sophistication, but lately it seems show-offy and empty to me. The object is to consume your influences and spit them back, rather than list them and show what good taste you have (this is also what sort of gets to me about some of the Godard I've been watching (esp. Alphaville), where he seems to be throwing weighty signifiers at the audience just to see what sticks.) Again, Laura Owens - this may just be my lack of sophistication (and knowledge of art history) showing but to me her paintings transcend the source materials - they don't read to me as pastiche. Delia and other people seem to read the paintings primarily in that way - focusing on the parts rather than the whole, whereas I don't get the urge to do that with Owens. Currin's paintings, however, beg for this, and would seem to lack most of their meaning without their context - this kitschy zone where high art and illustration bend and wobble together.

The targets of Currin's burlesques, are, alas, pretty easy too. Admittedly, in 1991 it might have seemed much more daring and even career-suicidal to lampoon "PC" mores, but there's always indulgence for "bad boys," ( and I just read this short, ridiculous interview with a feminist scholar who wrote a recent book denouncing the concept of "cool" as sexist. Um, not sure why I mentioned that, aside from the fact that it's daffy.) especially when you're dating the gallery owner or whatever. The later "genre" paintings that seem to lampoon the nouveau riche - I don't precisely get the commentary on class here. If I were a rich person, would I want one on my wall? Yeah, probably, to show that I could take a few good natured jabs from the bohemians about how I was a soulless buffoon. There are just levels of knowingness between the artist and the collector that could make one swoon - the calculations of who is putting one over on whom.

Artists who are also named John (or Jan Jansz).

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
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Jan Jansz van De Velde II (1593-1641)
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Jan Jansz van De Velde III (1620-1662)
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Ultimately, neither is artist nor collector perpetrating or recuperating a critique of class because these paintings aren't at all transgressive - there's nothing shocking about them, although they try to shock. An argument could be made that they're so banal that they're shocking, but I'm not sure I'd want to talk to the person who would make that argument. I think (and this comes from a probably not authoritative monograph on Manet by Georges Bataille I picked up secondhand) that truly transgressive art is created when the artist is not trying to shock - Olympia or those Balthus paintings of little girls they have in the Met, which still shock me every time I see them. Someone in conversation said to me that the tension of Currin's paintings comes from the calculation to shock and also the compulsiveness of his male gaze (his take on the first few sets of paintings were that Currin was saying something like "I can't help myself but to objectify these women, but I'll make them have huge boobs and rough faces just to make it all the more ridiculous"), but I think the calculation overrides any other motive. He's simply not truly kinky enough to be interesting. Except in two paintings, which I kind of like a lot, only one of which was at the show ( I think; they might have added the other later). They're very similar paintings - the one at the show was titled "Lobster" and had a bent-over woman with a still-life on her back, and the other is this:

The Moroccan, which is similar in tone - funny, weird, and perhaps a bit sick. These are the only paintings that made me think that maybe Currin has something interesting to offer, anyway. ”

— Number One Hater

Hate Disclaimer: This is Todd saying all this. This is not me saying all this. Although I did run it, so I suppose I have to be held to some account. John, Todd's website is here. I will tell you Todd's home address too for $500. Let me know, thanks.

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