Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Currin's Turkey

I feel uneasy when it comes to adding works by living artists to my precious “1perArtist” folder. I love contemporary art, but what happens when an artist inevitably creates a work that’s better than the one I originally chose? Going through the process of choosing art and saving it to my computer seems so final. I’m committing myself to this one painting, or drawing, or sculpture, or whatever it happens to be. I know it’s not really like that. That it’s easy to go back and reexamine an artist at anytime. That, in fact, that’s what I should be doing even for those that are long dead. But I usually don’t. No matter how much I love or admire a living artist, I’m usually too conflicted and end up completely ignoring them.

Not today. Today I’m going to talk to you about John Currin, an artist who is very much alive and very much awesome. The work I chose is his 2003 oil painting Thanksgiving. I figure that if I’m going to break my “no living artists” rule, it might as well be to show you a Thanksgiving painting the day before Thanksgiving.

John Currin, Thanksgiving, 2003, oil on canvas, 172.9 x 132.3 cm.

John Currin is an American artist who is best known for his sardonic paintings of women. In the early years, he focused on the impossibly busty and the creepy, cartoon-faced men who woo them. Now, his paintings are downright pornographic. Seriously. Porn. But, while Currin has often been accused of sexism, I think there may be something more to his work. I don’t think he’s making clichéd, fetishistic paintings just because he’s an infantile perv. I think that by showing us the images he does, he makes us stop and think about political correctness, our society, and our own attitudes. Plus, I love figure painting, and Currin’s a technically adept figure painter in a time when “real artists” are supposed to work with belly button lint and formaldehyde (although there’s nothing wrong with that either).

Thanksgiving depicts three eerily similar looking women with super skinny waists and giraffe-like necks gathered around a giant, raw turkey. They look like they could be different ages, but that could also be chalked up to the angles. The painting itself is firmly situated within art historical traditions, although it can be a bit tricky to figure out which ones. In typical postmodern fashion, Currin mixes and matches visual references as diverse as classical architecture, surrealism, and Norman Rockwell. But the most obvious reference is to Dutch genre paintings and still lifes. Like a Rembrandt, pale figures emerge from a dark brown background. The elaborate mirror and hanging candelabra suggest The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck. The blackish-purple grapes, dry onion, and wilting flowers point to Pieter Claesz still lifes. They may look perfect at first, but then you see little rotting bits of fruit, or half eaten pies, or bugs.

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, oil on oak, 82.2 x 60 cm.

In the 2006 book John Currin, Currin explains that he considered Thanksgiving in its original incarnation to be a failure. Lucky for us, he gave it another shot. It turns out, his muse for the revamp was his wife Rachel Feinstein, a sculptor in her own right. She was pregnant at the time and posed for all three women. In the end, Thanksgiving took exactly nine months to complete and became a sort of allegory for her pregnancy.

Not being privy to Currin’s private life, I see it differently. To me, Thanksgiving looks like a stage set. The three women are bumbling about playacting something they seem to have no real experience with. Props are crowded into the picture plane, and the women’s expressions are incredibly theatrical. The woman in the middle seems to be tasting something out of an empty spoon (although her mouth makes it look more like she’s singing than eating). The one on the left, holding the spoon, is also carrying a pot lid, apparently just for looks. At first glance, the woman in the lower right seems to be doing some real work. But no. She’s just staring at a grape she’s holding between her thumb and index finger. The whole scene is some sort of absurd mystery that makes me do a double, triple, and even quadruple take. Maybe the women have cooks and servers to take care of Thanksgiving preparations for them, but they want to put on a good show?

All in all, Thanksgiving is more subtle than a lot of Currin’s work. The overall feel that makes a Currin a Currin is there, but there’s less harshness and a complete lack of boobs. And I’m ok with that. While I’m a firm supporter of Currin’s work and think that it’s good when an artist tackles the taboo, some of Currin’s more lascivious paintings can make me a little too uneasy.

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