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Currin Again

by Miles Mathis

go to first Currin article from 2004.
go to second Currin article from 2004.

I am but mad north by northwest:
when the wind is southerly, I know
a hawk from a handsaw.—

February 13, 2008

In this latest winter of our discontent, the desperation of the New York avant garde is reaching new and perhaps final levels of gassiness. Realizing that they once again, for the 92nd year in row, have nothing to write about or look at worth writing about or looking at, they return, as if by rote, to John Currin, their last best, though pathetically shallow, hope. One can only hope, with pathos and bathos, it is their last.

Now, Currin himself admitted going into a funk—or what he called a “dry spell”—in 2004, after his success at the Whitney and all his big-city write-ups. It wasn’t very good timing for a dry spell, since Gagosian had just taken him away from Andrea Rosen and raised his prices into the exosphere. Two years later, in 2006, Currin had a small show at Gagosian which did not even come close to selling out. Many of the paintings are still listed at the Gagosian website. Beyond that, none of his works since 2003 are nearly as interesting—even as illustration—as his earlier things like Hobo and Sno-bo. He has developed a heightened interest in technique, as we shall see, and his technique has gotten a bit better in the meantime. But it appears that he has long since emptied his narrow quiver.

Not to worry, the avant garde has never needed actual artworks to go on. It subsists entirely on the write-ups and always has, and if breasts are sagging or members are flagging, they just spill more ink in more high-tone places. Hence we find another long pointless paean in the New Yorker , to follow similar things in GQ and Penthouse and lord knows where else. A small, sad show in London is the proffered occasion this time, but that is just an excuse for another blubbering tour through the fashionable townhouse and a rehash of the resume.

The readers and writers of contemporary magazines—these Leviathans of taste and culture—don’t know art from garfunkel, but they hunger for pictures of the artist and his family and his bed and his studio and his wine cellar and his bookshelf and his palm pilot and his tie collection. And they thirst for gossip about his past and his future and his prices and his dog and his childhood sweethearts and his suits. To them it matters not what Currin has or has not painted, it only matters who he has married and what parties he goes to and whether he is the 19th best dressed man on the East Coast or the 20th, and how tall he is.

I would have been too shagged out from chronic malaise to comment on this, except that Currin says a couple of exceedingly stupid things here, even stupider than usual (even stupider than the avant garde artist is usually paid to say) and this put me in the mood to write.

As it turns out, Currin is now so desperate for relevance that he is trying to tie his recent pornographic output to world politics. Let me lead by saying I don’t care that he is painting porn. It doesn’t offend me; it doesn’t impress me. I look at nudity and sex on the internet and sometimes enjoy it. The difference is I would never try to defend my art, or apologize for my sex-gazing, by tying it to politics of any kind. But for some reason Currin finds this necessary. He says,

I know how right wing this sounds . . . but I was thinking how pornography could be a superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race.

No, John, that doesn’t sound right wing, it just sounds phony. It is the among the worst-disguised fake philosophy of the last decade (and has a lot of competition in that regard). And it doesn’t even make sense. As far as this “dying race” is the race of people with white European ancestry (this must be what he means, in context), the gods of this race would not and could not be propitiated by such an offering. If this race is dying then it is dying because its gods are Mammon and Moloch, not Isis or Aphrodite or Freyja. Our gods are not big-dicked totems or cow-uddered rock carvings and haven’t been for millennia. Those gods are buried deep in the earth and you couldn’t raise them by a century of sex or a pile of porn to the moon.

Currin can’t really think he is being superstitious or religious, but even if he did he would be very confused. A chrome and enamel flat in Soho is not the first place one would think to go to build a pagan altar to the earthy gods. If Currin is trying to score points in some heaven, his checks from Sadie Coles and Gagosian and his deification by Robert Rosenblum and Peter Schjeldahl are not going to be outweighed on the scales by a million hecatombs of burning oxen or by a billion beddings of Erato.

And they especially are not going to be outweighed by such tepid and ugly images as the new porn series. Sno-bo was a thousand times sexier than these new copulation shots (and even she is not going to score high with the Muses—as I have it from them directly). Of all the porn to pick, why this?

Currin tells us he painted this because of the twelve Danish newspaper cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and “the killing of Theo van Gogh, the film director, by some jihadist in Amsterdam—all of a sudden the most liberal societies in the world were having intimidation murders happen. That's when it occured to me that we might lose this thing—not the Iraq war but the larger struggle.”

As if that weren’t enough and more than enough, he continued,

I'm gonna have a fucking fatwa on me for saying this, but I had a kind of cockamamy political idea that this is what we're fighting the Islamists with: They've got the Koran, and we've got the best porn ever made! I mean that as a joke but also as something that's literally true. . . .In the European theater the question seemed to be, “Who's going to win? Allah or porn?” Personally, I hope we win. I hope porn wins.

Didn’t Currin have some sort of veto clause in this interview? Some sort of emergency small-print that allowed him a late self-edit just in case he started quoting Rush Limbaugh or started channeling Danny Bonaduce from the Partridge Family, Season 2?   I mean, good god, what is this about a “European theater”? Does he mean the cineplex in Hamburg, or is he leaning over a map in his basement, moving around toy soldiers and Sherman tanks?

Just to be clear, these quotes don’t sound either left or right to me. They sound like Currin has been scouted by the CIA, and the CIA is (officially) non-partisan. Currin lives in NYC and has eyes and ears. Almost seven years after 911, he can’t really believe that the Muslims are the enemy in any real “theater”, or that Islam is the primary threat to world peace. No, his “dying race” is that threat, and everyone knows it, or should. Outside the US, this knowledge is nearly unanimous. I just lived in Belgium for three years, and I can tell you that white Europeans, even the ones who want the Muslims to live somewhere else, don’t think any nation of Islam is the primary aggressor in the world. The Dutch and Flemish nationalists may want uni-culturalism above all else, but unless they are also with covert operations—like Theo van Gogh was (is)—they aren’t denying that the US is the empire on the move. Europeans have their own sort of blindered and blinkered view: they no longer see themselves as the problem—since we in the US have taken on that mantle. In their eyes, they are not the dying race, we are. Like the Native Americans, the Europeans are waiting for us to commit cultural suicide, so that they can pick up the pieces. We may be the great great grandchildren to these Europeans, but we left the house long ago. We aren’t their concern anymore. They can deny the blood link, if it comes down to it. In their opinion, we are committing cultural suicide by spreading empire too far, too fast, and with no finesse. They know that in the tally of “intimidation murders” we have no competitors, in this century or any other. We left the Huns and the Romans behind us decades ago. Even the Germans look at us like a newly minted race, capable of things even they never thought of.

But it should not be necessary to live abroad to have some inkling of this. I hear that the internet may now be available in Manhattan. Currin is sold as avant, cutting edge, smart-as-a-whip, Yale-educated, Jewish married, and so on; but he still gets his news straight from the White House or Rupert Murdoch, apparently. This doesn’t make him rightist, necessarily; it makes him either an idiot or a plant.

We will assume he is not an idiot. We will assume that he is using words like “cockamamy” only to seem like a friendly rube, appealing to the common man that reads the New Yorker. But that begs the question if he is getting his politics from his in-laws. All this talk of Theo van Gogh and Islamic jihadists and so on sounds an awful lot like Alan Dershowitz. I don’t think Dershowitz has ever pulled porn into the mix like this, but otherwise the similarities are striking. The hawks, Jewish and non-Jewish, always find a way to focus on the one guy in Holland instead of the thousands or millions with our mark on them.

Like his handlers—whoever they are—John has to pretend to be more concerned with one or two “intimidation murders” in “liberal societies” than he is with millions of murders in Iraq and around the world. For him, the question is not Iraq, it is the “larger struggle” of porn against Allah.

This can only be seen as a perverse new twist in the globalist bi-partisan Jewish/Christian/Atheist propaganda machine to sell pre-emptive and continuous war as “a guarantee of freedom.” We are not murdering innocent men, women, and children just for oil, we are doing it for porn.

Well, John, that really sells it for me, boy. I had thought we were doing it for some selfish reasons—so that we could continue to drive our Hummers, for instance, and talk on our cellphones and drink bottled water. But no, it is so that we can continue to masturbate with full rights and a clean conscience. The fertility gods must smile upon such actions. What do they care if hundreds of thousands of foreigners conceived in sex are starved and killed in forests of famine and lakes of blood, as long as we follow it by a Soho sacrifice to Frigg? One or two shitty paintings should buy us a quick indulgence, a guarantee of a touchdown or two, and a convincing win in the war for “democracy.”

Do I expect anyone else will call him on this, especially from the so-called left? Not a chance. In the “American theater”, there is no left, at least not in the art scene or in the journals. The progressivism of the avant garde is just a pose, a marketing ploy. When it gets right down to it, these people have all the creative courage of a Hallmark Card or a member of Congress.

In championing any kind of freedom, even the freedom to masturbate, Currin will be hailed as a hero of the left. Worldwide mass murders don’t register with these people. Republican and Democrat, Jew and Gentile, they hold hands and sing God Bless America while robbing the poor box to buy more bombs. Even 3000 of their own murdered, in their own home town, by their own government, can be ignored as inconsequential next to the freedom to masturbate and make false offerings to silly gods. Some radical feminist at the Village Voice can attack Currin for painting big tits, that is, but don’t expect anyone to attack him for parroting CIA handbills or for sounding like a commercial for the Department of Defense. The Pentagon-Porn alliance: “Fighting Terrorists, one Fuck at a Time!”

But let’s switch gears and actually look at the paintings. I know this will shock the avant garde: actually having to look at the images without a pre-set screen, a playbook, or a list of platitudes. But it occurs to me it might be helpful.

Here is what Currin says about them:

I’ve always felt insecure about being a figurative artist, and about being an American painter. My technique is in no way comparable to that of a mid-level European painter of the 19th century. They had way more ability and technical assurance.

As I pointed out several years ago, in each interview Currin always passes through a tiny window of clarity and says at least one thing that is true. In this interview, this is it. We would be tempted to give him some credit for humility or insight, except that we remember him saying in those other interviews that he wanted to be famous and to get lots of attention. In this one we are told he is right where he wants to be, so it is difficult to work up much empathy for him. We could take this quote as some sort of admission of bad faith, but it makes more sense to take it like [the British portrait painter] Stuart Pearson Wright’s admission that the avant garde is right about a lot of things. Especially as regards that first sentence: the avant garde expects figurative painters to be insecure, and Currin is good enough to oblige them. They have spent half of every year’s budget for 80 years being sure that figurative painters were insecure, or worse, and Currin would never have been allowed into the game if he didn’t play along. Even if he weren’t insecure, there is likely a clause in his contract that requires him to say he is at least five times a year.

Jed Perl at the New Republic has been even harder on Currin than Currin pretends to be on himself. He calls Currin’s paintings,

Mousy imitations of old master portrait styles that would not earn him a freelance gig as a magazine illustrator.

Strong, but too strong. This is precisely where Currin should be, supposing he could find a magazine that needed nearly nude cartoons in the snow. Currin has an illustrator’s style as well as an illustrator’s mind and level of creativity. He cannot give a face any real depth or life, but he can certainly produce figures that are interesting in their own limited ways. You wouldn’t want to look at Sno-bo everyday: she would wear pretty thin, so to speak. But you don’t mind looking once or twice. She’s cute and clever, and it would be pointless to deny it. Is she a damn good illustration? Yes. Is she worth a million dollars? No.

To show why I think this is so, in even greater detail, let us look at what has been called his best recent painting, by critics and non-critics alike. A portrait of his son.

I agree that this is one of his best works. It has a certain charm. It is not phony in any way. It is the kind of straightforward painting we wish he were allowed to do, and would do. But of course if he did this sort of thing all the time, he wouldn’t be where he is. He would be where I am.

And if he were where I am, then people would have to look a bit harder at this work. Compared to his other work, it is a gem. Compared to any good portrait, it is a failure. Why? You may think it is due to some technical problem. This is how the other portrait painters would critique it; and the painting does have problems technically, as I will show in a minute. But that is not why I think it fails. It fails because the little boy is not alive. The eyes are dead. Remember how Michael Kimmelman put it in his New York Times review in 2003: “Eyes in Mr. Currin's work tend to be black holes, sucking up light." Back then this was considered a bit of flattery. The avant garde wants people looking like mannequins, since this plays into their critique of society. But Currin has not found it easy to turn off his “critical distance” or his sangfroid or whatever it is. He has created no connection here to his own son. The boy looks like a pretty doll.

Currin is finally beginning to learn some of the technical tricks of the old masters, but he still hasn’t learned the cardinal rule of traditional painting: you have to make the face live. He should have studied Van Dyck or Titian instead of Velasquez’ s Infantas. Velasquez painted the princesses as little dolls, just like this, and that is why no one likes them as much as his portraits of the dwarfs or his other friends at court. Currin has an unerring instinct for the lifeless and mannered, so that even when he goes to Velasquez—the right teacher, in many ways—he still ends up with an emotional nullity.

The eyes are the main problem, since they have no life or sparkle. Part of this is strictly technical. The eyeballs need to curve and the irises need touch lights and color variation and so on. But it is more than that, since the mouth also has no expression. You could add a lot of technical tricks to liven up the paint of the mouth, but it would still have no expression because Currin photographed the boy when he was not expressing anything. The boy is very pretty, and nattily dressed, but the mood of the piece is flat.

Currin also doesn’t know what he is doing with his light. He doesn’t have enough tonal variation in the skin to create a real curvature, and this is because he is lighting from the wrong angle. He has only two basic tones in his skin. He has no real highlights and no real shadows. This is what flattens out the face and makes it look like an illustration.

Then look at what he does with the background. He has chosen a good color, but he doesn’t appear to know what to do when it meets the figure. He just takes it up to the edge of the figure and lets it stop. It looks like a pastel sketch or something. This is why the little boy looks pasted onto the canvas. He doesn’t really live in that background, it just hangs around him, flatly.

Currin has this problem with all his edges here. It is because they didn’t teach him anything at Yale and he is having to re-invent the wheel. He is scared to go wet into wet, but you have to overlap and repaint to get these edges to blend.

To be fair, he has also done a lot of things right here. His color harmony is lovely. He hasn’t felt a need to over-saturate, as so many realists now do. His drawing is very good. The hair has a nice degree of finish, not too much not too little. And he has picked a fetching costume. All these things take real talent, and Currin is not without talent. But because, up to now, he has been more interested in getting rich and famous than in learning how to paint, he has what he would be expected to have: a big bank account and an unimpressive oeuvre.

Just to put to rest all these claims of mastery and direct comparisons to the greats, let's look at a close-up of one of his better-known paintings.

There is nothing wrong with that as a piece of illustration, but don't tell me it compares to Caravaggio or Sargent. Ignoring subject matter and just looking at paint quality, anyone who has ever held a brush will tell you Currin has only a tithe of the depth or complexity of even the worst of the real painters of history. Currin admits it himself, above. And this illustrative technique was chosen on purpose. It is not a failing. If he really achieved the complexity and depth of the Old Masters, he would be thrown out of the avant garde as a dangerous virus. They can't have that. They allow this mocking downgrade of realism in order to undercut realism. Currin's technique is not an homage or a return to mastery, it is intentional propaganda against mastery. This is its use to the avant garde. Surely Currin understands that.

Let’s return for a moment to Sno-bo. Notice that I do Currin the favor of looking at his best work. It is a work that is very popular and it is a work that I like. Arthur Danto of The Nation says this of Hobo and Sno-bo:

The two figures are exceedingly mysterious. . . .As paintings they have the power to hold us in front of them, contemplating meanings too fragile and remote for application to life.


Come on! “Exceedingly mysterious”? “Meanings too fragile and remote”? I like the paintings, but I don’t see any mystery or anything remote there. They’re clever cartoons, made specially for guys who like their women skinny and blonde. I do, but I can’t pretend there is anything mysterious about it, particularly when I am looking at these cartoons. I thought that was the whole point of them. Not to mystify, but to de-mystify. Danto doesn’t even know how to look at an image, much less take the artist at his word. If Currin had been trying consciously or unconsciously to plumb some depths of sex or desire, do you think he would have chosen this subject to paint, or given it such a perfectly inane title? Currin is no doubt satisfied to allow such misreadings, since they make the painting bigger and more expensive than it is. But they remain egregious misreadings.

As another example of Danto’s complete missing of every point, lets look at another quote:

One cannot become a Mannerist as a matter of stylistic decision. One has to allow talents to show that have been held in check all along.

Just the opposite of the truth, as usual. If he would only ask Currin, I am sure Currin would tell him that the mannerist style that he borrowed was borrowed as a “stylistic decision,” with full premeditation. In fact, this used to be the understanding about Currin’s style. It was good precisely because it was premeditated, and therefore false. If it had been genuine, if it had been arrived at in any natural way, it would not have been accepted by the avant garde, by places like the Whitney and the Guggenheim and MoMA. The Whitney has it in writing somewhere, I think, that no earnestness in style will be tolerated. If you are not a tongue-in-cheek realist, you are a real realist, in which case you are a danger, a pariah, and a potential terrorist.

In fact, Currin is on very dangerous ground with this portrait of his son, and I think he knows it. That is precisely why he was careful to surround it with large canvases of porn and other ironic swagger in his show. The avant garde may forgive him for one or two portraits of his son, as a sample of aberrant behavior or a temporary sign of madness. But he best not make a habit of it.

Odd Nerdrum is in precisely the same boat, a boat floating three feet above the water—so that no paddle may reach it. One of Nerdrum’s best-loved paintings is the one of his daughter Amo.

The child in this painting is fully alive, full of emotion, and painted with complete technical knowledge and assurance. But Nerdrum is in the same boat as Currin, since he cannot paint this sort of thing everyday. It is allowed only once in a blue moon. It must be surrounded by hooded freaks flexing their feet and chanting at the moon. If Nerdrum painted all his subjects in a straightforward manner, without manufactured mythologies and premeditated weirdnesses, he would still be struggling in obscurity, fenced out of the upper echelon of contemporary art which is Pluralism. Amo wasn’t Nerdrum’s entrée into the big time, it was paintings of one-armed hermaphrodites and nudes dumping in the woods.

Let me simplify this for you even more. Why is Currin in a higher price range? you may ask. 1) Nerdrum is better technically: but that doesn’t matter, since almost no one can see that. These major critics have compared Currin to everyone from Parmigianino to Sargent, so it is clear they are just dropping names. For them, any realist head is pretty much equivalent to any other: the hierarchy from Alex Katz to Titian is invisible to them, even as a sheer matter of technique. 2) Currin and Nerdrum both paint weird things, so in that regard we have a tie. In the avant garde, you are either in or you are out, and they are weird enough to be in. The hierarchies once you are in don’t have anything to do with the actual art. You can have a brick on the floor or a 20-foot canvas with six perfectly painted figures. The latter will not score you any extra points, and it may actually harm you. But Currin and Nerdrum are similar enough in the eyes of the avant garde that we have no separation here. 3) The whole reason Nerdrum is not as famous or expensive as Currin is that Nerdrum is in Iceland, not New York City; he is not married to the daughter of a Jewish dermatologist who he found in a faux gingerbread house in a gallery in Soho; and he doesn’t go to parties with Mick Jagger and Marc Jacobs and Chloe Sevigny, wearing two thousand dollar suits. Nerdrum is still so naïve and un-American that he actually spends his time painting. He should quit jacking off and come sleep with Larry Gagosian or Mary Boone or someone.

As a closer, I want to look at one more quote of Currin from this interview in the New Yorker:

The way things are painted trumps everything else.

This is given us as a reward at the very end of the article, as if it is very deep. But not only is it not deep, it is not true. Ironically, it does push Currin in line with Sargent, at least for a moment. Eleanor Heartney in Art in America has claimed that Currin’s style has something in common with Sargent’s style, but that is absurd. Currin has nothing in common with Sargent but this quote. When Sargent was at Broadway, Worchestershire, about the time he was painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, he said something very much like this. He said that it wasn’t so much what you painted as how you painted it, and he attempted to prove it by setting up his easel in a field at random and painting whatever was in front of him. It didn’t last for long, of course, since that was all balderdash. Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is one of the most manufactured things ever painted. It took months of model time for the two girls, frozen in place every day at the same time, 15 minutes before sunset. This is how real paintings are made. They aren’t accidents. And they aren’t paint samples, either. The way things are painted doesn’t matter at all, unless they are painted poorly. The subject and the treatment of the subject are what matter.

There are dozens of perfectly good and serviceable styles and methods in the history of figure painting. Some are tight, some loose, some outlined, some blended, some alla prima, some layered, some with high color, some with little color. None of these methods is necessarily superior to any other. As far as they are permanent, and express what needed to be expressed, they are artistically equivalent.

The perfect example of this is Currin himself. Currin’s technique is not perfect, but Currin’s main problem is not his technique. Currin’s main problem is his subject matter. Most of the time he is piecing together weird stuff he has found, in order to impress some critic or jury. Except when he is painting his son, he is not painting anything meaningful to him. Even his wife is used as a cut-out to be pushed in some way. He is always using her to make some clever statement or composition; he is never just painting her. I haven’t seen a straightforward portrait of her, (although I would like to). The closest he has come is Rachel in Fur.

But she is wearing those stupid purple sunglasses. Even here he is pushing his subject to appeal to modern standards and requirements. It is as if he can’t turn off the self-conscious games and asides for a moment. It isn’t enough for him—because it isn’t enough for the avant garde—to just paint a face because he loves it. Such a reason has no social relevance. What can a critic say about a thing like that? What hook can a dealer use to sell it?

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