John Currin's Gezellig is an important painting that forms part of his recent series inspired by pornographic imagery. The dramtatic foreshortening of this composition is designed to challenge the viewer to look up at the figure's face, the usual first point of call in observing humans in real life or representations. Yet the eye is continually confronted with the figure's nakedness and undulating expanse of creamy white flesh that eventually leads to a detached expression. In this delightfully perverse painting, Currin cunningly recruits the viewer into this perspective, which is at once shocking and arousing. We are left unsure whether this reclining nude is alone, perhaps relaxing into a pre- or post-coital reverie. As she sprawls out on rumpled sheets reading an unidentified book, her posture certainly suggests a kind of invitation that will stir her in to action. She is a passive creature; complying with the demands of a sexualized gaze, and depicted in a way that signals her availability for consumption. Controversial and driven by his own unique vision, Currin has been heralded as one of the most important artists of his generation and in the powerful position of re-directing people back to discussions of painting's relevance. With Gezellig he appears to play on the idea of painting as fetish object, doomed to be a victim of the lustful, objectifying male voyeur, while humorously re-casting the subject of Gustav Courbet's erotic masterpiece L'Origine du monde as a slightly bored, middle-class intellectual.
Courbet is one of Currin's all-time heroes and art historical quotation abounds in this painting where the artist seeks to perfect methods gleaned from his observation of old master paintings. For all the gender politics that seem to simmer in his work, Currin is primarily interested in painting, and he dares the viewer into transcending content to focus on process. He revisits classical techniques of modeling, perspective, coloring and light, building up the canvas surface with the utmost care and deliberation. His painstaking methods involve numerous preparatory drawings and a slow, traditional studio practice that only permits him to create up to ten paintings a year. Traces of this painting's dark imprimatura can be seen around edges of the compositional forms, upon which layers of transparent colors are gradually built up to create a deep and luminous surface. As the artist has suggested, "the overt political part [of my work] is no longer a primary motivation any more. It is getting technically really good at it that makes me more uncomfortable. That is where I am going. In a way, I guess that today is a political act--to get good at painting" (J. Currin interview with A. Gingeras, "John Currin: Pictor Vulgaris", K. Vander Weg and R. Dergan, (eds.), John Currin, New York, 2006, p. 43).
Despite this statement about his increasingly virtuosic technique, Currin has not lost his ambition or his ability to shock. Gezellig was created for Currin's first exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, in which more explicit content was presented than in any other images created by the politically incorrect provocateur. The painting was exhibited with several scenes of group sex and climaxing couples based on both vintage porn and the Venus' of centuries old paintings. This is the inverse of the portraits of dowdy menopausal women that first brought Currin attention in the early 1990s. Currin retains much of the figure's charm and physical beauty in this painting, somehow sidestepping his typical exaggeration of the body to preserve her sexual allure.
A further clue to understanding Currin's fusion of serious painterly concerns with imagery that courts the absurd lies in the titles of his works. Many of the porn inspired paintings are named after the places and people of Northern Europe, including Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Malmö, and The Danes. Gezellig itself takes its title from a Dutch word meaning cozy, friendly, or relaxing. Such references draw a connection to the stereotype of permissive sexual attitudes in these countries. They also hint at a kernel of the idea that prompted Currin to begin the series in the first place, namely the Muhammad cartoon controversy that was unfolding in Northern Europe at the time they were painted. Currin's reaction to the debate about free expression was to present a kind of satire of a libertine socialist Europe through the medium of pornography. But ultimately this complex argument was put aside as an excuse to make beautiful paintings full of animation and the delicate textures and hues of warm, naked skin. "I had a revelation that these porn paintings could be related to the Danish Muhammad cartoons," Currin explains "That seemed like the justification at the time. But as I explained the idea to people after the paintings were done, the political allegory started meaning less and less to me. It meant the most when it motivated me to make pictorial decisions to keep things on theme, almost like the person who's in charge of continuity in the movies. But it's not really as meaningful now, which is why I also imagine these works having concurrent subplots. I thought, "Oh, this was about 9/11," but it's also about being married or--not to compare the two--about my life and having children. Or it's about sex. Or it's about the way I wanted to paint. Those things can run together at the same time." (J. Currin quoted in A. Cook, "Interview with John Currin," John Currin, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, p. 13).
Currin recognizes that porn as a subject matter is loaded with cliché: from its tired photographic conventions, to the standard condemnation of its sexist values, to its frequent use in art as a symbol of personal liberation. Currin's conceptual program involves assimilating the inherent corruption of this visual system and re-presenting it in a traditionally elevated form to not only disturb society's, and more specifically the art world's, established taboos, but also to reinvigorate his medium and the genre of figurative painting in general. When questioned about his problematic female figures Currin replies with characteristically self-effacing humor: "I always find myself in this position of Spinal Tap guitarist Nigel Tufnel. People say, 'Do you think you're sexist?' and he says, 'What's wrong with sexy?' Obviously, I have a pretty sexist effect, I don't know if it's an intention, but it's what happens and I guess I am that way. I don't say it's a good thing to be, but it's not controllable. If I shut that down I would shut down a whole bunch of other stuff. If I became very concerned about sexist imagery I would have no source of energy anymore" (J. Currin interview with D. Goggins, "Perverse Beauty", Artnet, 19 September 2011).