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.