"This gift for total absorption of a wild diversity of images that respects neither art-historical chronology nor pecking orders of high and low art has made it possible for Currin to reinvent the tired category of genre painting" (R. Rosenblum, "John Currin and the American Grotesque", in John Currin, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, p.18). Girl on a Hill epitomizes the reinvigoration of genre painting. Bordering on caricature without ever quite crossing into its domain, the sugarcoating of Currin's painting brings together diverse precedents, from Norman Rockwell to Titian to nostalgic Magazine advertisements. Girl on a Hill presents us with a seemingly Middle-American image that is still ripe with Currin's characteristic subversion of his updated genre.
Accepting that it is possible to be both progressive and traditional in this moment, John Currin has surely triumphed in this unusual artistic accomplishment. Girl on a Hill taps into many of the devices Currin uses to merge these seemingly disparate ideals. The nostalgia of Normal Rockwell is most immediate reference in the work. Seated in the middle of the canvas, a girl turns around to face the viewer, a faint hint of a smile on her lips. It remains unclear if she is inviting us over or looking past us into the distance. Her golden hair matched the field below her, just as her eyes and shirt match the sky. The light and airy color palette, which makes the work lively, along with her placement in the center of the canvas reference, has classical roots in both Renaissance and Rococo painting. She retains much of her charm, somehow sidestepping Currin's typical exaggeration of the body to retain her alluring charm.
An old Harley Davidson Advertisement served as a source for the work. In the ad a young blonde girl is perched on a bike, glancing back over her shoulder to the consumer she is luring, inviting them to come ride with her. The use of the nostalgic advertisement as a source provides a lineage with the Pop Artists of the 1960s such as Lichtenstein, who reworked images of their day. In Girl on a Hill Currin provides the same glance outward and backward turning a suggestive advertisement into a classic American painting.
Charmed by the old fashioned but a product of contemporary art, Currin states, "Well, in a funny way I feel weirdly brand-new, because it is so anachronistic to paint. Right now I'm reading The Quiet American by Graham Greene. And you can't help but feel that being an American is like having deep principles, but not being aware of them, and everything you do consciously is stupid, clownlike. I think I have great skills and great sensitivity to paint, and I think I understand European painting, but sometimes I feel like my American-ness is a handicap or a clown outfit that I am constantly find myself in. There is nothing I can do about it." (Interview with John Currin by Rochelle Steiner in John Currin, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, p.83).
John Currin came of age in the 1990s in New York, where his first one-person gallery show was at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, then still in SoHo in 1992. The show consisted of small format paintings of mostly older women who, while attractive in some subterranean way, Currin did not glamorize as objects of desire as women have been historically. Currin has always relied on tradition, if only to subvert it. More than other subjects, figurative works tend to evoke the strongest of reactions. Girl on a Hill fits into Currin's lineage of figurative work, but with a softer edge. Controversial and driven by his own unique vision, Currin is heralded as one of the most important artists of his generation and more specifically in the powerful position of re-directing art history back to discussions of painting's relevance.