article_338_john_currin_1_580x396.png
John Currin

Master of tits

He follows the law of the paintbrush - yet is an outlaw all the same. John Currin provokes, puzzles and draws protest with his paintings. But is there substance behind the style?

John Currin is a bad painter. Not in the sense that he doesn’t know his craft, which he meticulously bases on the Old Masters, but in the sense that he is wildly unconventional. His work has garnered much attention in recent years for breaking stylistic as well as narrative rules – exaggerating his subjects’ features and making the ugly and awkward his focus. As he strolled into the room for our interview, it became pretty clear that John Currin is another caliber in the art world. Dressed like an investment banker out for a casual lunch, he looks a lot like the eighties enfant terrible of the literature world, Bret Easton Ellis. And much like Ellis was never quiet about his desire to make money and his comfort at the top, Currin doesn’t try to make himself out as a suffering, tortured artist either. He’s become a businessman. Most likely, that sort of attitude comes from the fact that his works in recent years have sold for seven figures and museums and galleries around the world have his pieces on display, most recently garnering him a spot in the „Bad Painting“ exhibit at Vienna’s MUMOK and bringing him, the showman of the art world, all the way to Austria. And all that despite the fact that the subject matter of his works is often purposefully of bad taste and that he seems to be quietly mocking the people who have the means to hang his pieces in their living rooms.

Was there ever any other way for John Currin though but to end up as the art world’s latest catch? Born into a family of university professors in 1962, there wasn’t a defining moment when the love affair with painting began. „You start being the best drawer at school. You win an art award and then kids don’t beat you up because you can draw“, he recounts. In his teens, he began taking lessons from an old Russian painter who became his mentor. The afternoons spent in a dark attic with a man who barely spoke English kindled a life-long admiration for European art. Today, Currin even goes as far as to admit to his feeling insecure about being an American painter. Particularily enamored by spending several days in and out of the Kunsthistorisches Museum he takes a break from name-dropping his creative influences to sum up his self-deprecating relationship to American art: „There are some okay American painters but they are so far outnumbered by this army of geniuses who are Italian, French, German … there really is no great American painting before Abstract Expressionism.“

And yet, Currin’s work is self-admittedly inherently American and reflects a style and a content that really is a definitive representation of its source. Studying his craft at Yale, Currin launched full-steam into the New York art world of the late eighties. With a hungry determination and a will to shock the bourgeoisie with his paintings of big breasted bombshells, Currin’s classically styled work made a splash at a time when the medium of painting was of little interest. Far from politically-correct and often drawing on quite crude metaphors, he rose to fame by breaking the rules. It wasn’t hard for him to remain motivated, even when one of his early shows drew harsh criticism from feminist activists. „Everyone now feels they have a right to be offended by something and that’s a big part of the culture nowadays – [They] take turns getting offended and then enjoy […] the inevitable apology and I think I half-consciously picked up on that. And used it for my own enjoyment and to get attention.“

But the „nastiness“ has slowly worn off and left Currin as an interpreter of the Old Masters – softening not only his physical approach to the canvas but also his imagery. His portrayal of women began to shift. No longer was he making statements on how women’s ideals of beauty were portrayed in society („Bra Shop“) or on how women who are past their sexual prime are perceived („Ms. Omni“) – his commentary took a back seat to his newfound fascination with beauty. Beauty that he based on his muse, the sculptor Rachel Feinstein, whom he is married to. She not only shifted the direction of his work, she became part of it. It is her face that Currin paints over and over again, if not directly as a portrait, he will use her bone structure as the basis of his figures. She is vital for his well-being as a painter. „She’ll tell me when I’m smug about something in my painting. I get a lot from her,“ he laughs, stirring his espresso, „I’m sure she gets a lot from me too, I’m just not sure what that is.“ If it isn’t Currin’s wife that serves as inspiration for his witty interpretations of male/female clichés, then it might be a Fassbinder film or a High School yearbook that get’s his creativity going. And yet, even though his characters seem to be plucked from real life, the artist insists: „Apart from my wife, whom I use as a recurring image, there was never a real person.“

John Currin’s current fascination is with Danish porn from the seventies, of which he translates the graphic images almost identically onto his canvas. Once again being criticized for the use of overt sexuality and reproducing images from photographs, Currin’s pornography series can be seen as an homage to freedoms once propagated by the likes of Gustave Courbet, and, according to

Currin, a validation of the clichés about freedom in Europe, from the viewpoint of someone used to a more conservative society. And it is, of course, again a way for an American wild child to make waves by putting the forbidden fruit on a silver platter into the homes of conservative art collectors.

In his own home, Currin’s day to day seems, well, shockingly simple. He’s a family-first man, who takes his two young sons to kindergarten, goes to the gym and takes care of home repairs before heading to his personal studio space. „It’s like a day job that you are about to get fired from“, he laughs, yet it’s surprising how disciplined he is about his daily regimen. And yet the conservative veneer doesn’t keep him from being just a little bit rock ’n’ roll. „I became friends with (the musician, ed note) Jarvis Cocker years ago – it’s pretty amazing to know someone who can do that. I feel rather stupid around him because he can do anything he wants to.“

Much like his musically-inclined friend, Currin faces almost the same public scrutiny. He isn’t by any means media shy, seemingly doesn’t hesitate to let the prying cameras visit him in his studio. He travels and talks about his art like a showman, and isn’t by any

means a reclusive artist. He seems to almost thrive on being in the public eye and yet it’s this unfriendly terrain that often gives him grief.

„That hurts my feelings“, he says, referring to his reaction when people criticize him for being just another creation of the art dealers, out to rake in the cash on his behalf. It seems that Currin faces the crux of being the smartest kid in class, constantly having to juggle between showing off his talent and playing it cool. It is perhaps this dichotomy of businessman and agent provocateur that makes him, much like his paintings, so hard to categorize, so hard to put a finger on.

It would seem that John Currin has achieved what he initially set out to do. „I wanted to annoy people. I didn’t want to shock anybody and I don’t think I ever have.“ Now that the attention has been on him for well over a decade and a half, it’s hard to keep the edginess going. He compares it to a punk band playing so much that they eventually get too good at their instruments. John Currin’s relationship to music can be seen as an allegory for his problem with being at the top of career that’s based on being the odd one out. He’s spent days testing his own limits by listening to bad music while painting in his studio – „hair metal, easy listening, elevator music“ only to find out that the opposite of annoyance had settled it. „You listen to things ironically, like the Carpenters,“ he chuckles, „and then you find yourself fucking loving it.“ And then you just have to find new buttons to push.

Tags:

  • Fotos: John Currin
  • Issue: 01
  • Keywords: Art