Slick and distasteful
John Currin Serpentine Galley, until 2 November
John Currin (born 1962) has been hailed as the finest young painter to emerge from America in recent years, and now he is honoured here with a substantial retro
spective exhibition at the Serpentine. Certainly, he is a maker of memorable images (I seem to have known the portrait he calls 'Ms Omni' for years), but I think his talents as a painter have been exaggerated. He is not exactly modest about his achievements — 'I think I have great skills and great sensitivity to paint,' he is quoted as saying — but we shouldn't necessarily take an artist at his own evaluation. It's probably because no one else is attempting to paint the figure in quite such a realistic, if distorted, manner that Currin stands out. He has facility as a painter, but he is by no means the master that his apologists Currin's work has attracted a good deal of attention because of the supposed shock-value of his imagery. Sometimes he paints the nude in a sub-Old Masterly fashion, cribbing from Cranach but distorting the figures in a way which manages to be both slick and distasteful, but more often he depicts clothed or partially clothed women with outsize busts. The man evidently has a thing about boobs, which he parades with comic-book smuttiness. He doesn't seem to like women very much: he disfigures them, makes them look ridiculous, immobilises them in bed (a whole series of these), slathers them with pancake make-up and generally makes dopes of them. He admits to wanting to portray women as 'burdened', and stated in another interview that he had never painted 'as a happy person' until he met his wife. It's an unhappiness, a grudge against people, that still seems to linger in his work.
Currin's depictions of men are scarcely more sympathetic, though at least they're not equipped with over-large appendages. He seems to have attached himself instead to depicting a male type — the bearded, middle-aged academic — who is fortunate to get a younger girl. Or he paints gay cou
pies. There is one portrait called 'The Producer' that could be satire — a too wholesome yet asthenic grinning figure in a flying jacket, like a sort of girlie air-ace. I suppose these paintings offer a bit of light relief from the unremitting prurience of vast chests and well-filled brassieres. But the emotional thrust behind them is so banal as to be positively adolescent. They possess all the psychological penetration of an unintelligent agony aunt. Their intellectual level is negligible. No doubt this is all intended by the artist, but what a bore it is.
The spirit of that great and eccentric cartoonist Robert Crumb seems to hover over the Serpentine, except that Currin is nowhere near as good nor as inventive. So much of his information is lifted from other sources — mostly photographs and magazines. He is an avid collector of 1960s girlie photos and pin-ups, and a fan of Frank Frazetta's comics, particularly Conan the Barbarian, noted for its bigbreasted superwomen. The problem with taking directly from such sources is that they don't contain enough information to make a painting live. However technically competent Currin becomes, and he is certainly dexterous in putting on the paint, he will never make paintings of real presence until he looks more at real people, not at second-hand representations of them.
It is significant that Currin first hired a model to pose for him in 2001, for a painting entitled 'Nude on a Table'. Before that he says he looked at his own body and features or drew inspiration from his wife's. There is a singular lack of understanding in Currin's paintings of how the human form fits together, or of how the artist can convey convincingly the solidity of a body. To comprehend and paint form properly, I suspect that Currin needs to work more from life. Although he's juiced up his 'Nude on a Table' with tricksy distortions and some references to Mantegna, he can't disguise his inability to paint or position shoulders.
So often in his other paintings the wilful distortions seem to be there to distract attention from the inability to paint real limbs.Look at the utterly boneless arms in 'Heartless'. Or consider the left arm, like a claw or a prosthesis, in 'Dream of the Doctor'. Or the rubber-necked monopod in 'SuperAngel'.
Currin is, however, good at fabrics, which demand less skill. Look at the man's apron in 'Homemade Pasta', or the skirts in 'Jaunty and Mame', or the undies in 'The Bra Shop'. You can always determine the passages he's really enjoyed painting for they have the authority of real experience, as does the golden dress in 'Heartless'. Or the vase of flowers on the table behind the ghastly couple in 'Park City Grill', the male of which seems to bear an uncanny resemblance to Cliff Richard. more wrong. He's not yet good enough to be that. He has also said, 'The people I paint don't exist.' He's right there. His paintings are cartoons which he has attempted to raise to the level of art. Currin presumably expects to be taken seriously. On this showing, he doesn't deserve it. He may have condemned himself to painting male fantasies, but does the fantasy have to extend to his own importance? The Serpentine should be putting on better shows than this.