'In contrast to the blaring anatomical distortions, the emotional exchanges here are subtle and chaste, like some kind of updated religious picture. It can't be by chance that the gestures of these women evoke the poses of the Virgin in Renaissance paintings'
(R. Smith, 'Art in Review: John Currin at Andrea Rosen Gallery', in The New York Times, 7 November 1997).
'The palette knife reminds me of the way it feels when you ruin something with love. You can't improve it, you can't smooth it out-it only gets worse the more you touch it. The more love you show, the more you destroy it'
(J. Currin, quoted in K. Vander Weg (ed.), John Currin, New York 2006, p. 192).
Painted in 1997, John Currin's Daughter and Mother is a masterpiece by the artist that showcases his celebrated talent for de-stabilising the conventional tropes of American visual culture and the art historical canon. From 1992 through 1998, Currin's images employed the traditional genre of portraiture to illustrate the vacant typologies that have proliferated in Western culture. Examples explored during this period include middle-aged women, mismatched lovers, pulp-novel pin-ups, and pneumatic-bosomed blondes. The year 1996 marked a transitional moment in Currin's practice as he began to use multiple painterly techniques within a single work, conflating the glossy perfection found in contemporary visual culture with faces rendered in heavily applied impasto. Daughter and Mother is perhaps more chaste in subject matter, but continues in the artist's tradition of working with voluptuous curves and seductive women. Conflating iconic compositions from art history with the artificially rendered stock imagery of contemporary illustration, Currin creates images which are both banal and uncanny, that simultaneously seduce and repel.
'It's always me remembering an old master and combining it with contemporary ad images,' Currin explained to Robert Rosenblum, 'those are the two things that compel me. The misery and the damnation of the images that got into your head without your permission, the PC imagery and all these tableaus that are planted in your head about the way things should look: children, women, men, white people, black people, rich people, good people, evil people' (J. Currin, quoted in 'John Currin by Robert Rosenblum', in BOMB Magazine, no. 71, Spring 2000).
In Daughter and Mother, Currin presents a classically centered, closely-cropped composition of two women of seemingly similar age, the only clue that they are related comes from the artist's title. Currin deliberately omits any further narrative elements, obfuscating the viewer's comprehension of the figures' apparent sentimentality. Rendering his figures in an almost academic realism that recalls the uncanny imagery of Magritte, Currin's work operates in a similar fashion to the modern master by undermining the viewer's expectation of a readily discernible narrative.
With its tightly arranged composition, Currin's figures echo the didactic postures of religious iconography. The lilies also have direct references in Christianity with the Virgin Mary, the Annunciation and purity, the chastity conveyed by the image seeming to be at odds with the daughter's bountiful bosom. As Roberta Smith noted at the time, 'in contrast to the blaring anatomical distortions, the emotional exchanges here are subtle and chaste, like some kind of updated religious picture. It can't be by chance that the gestures of these women evoke the poses of the Virgin in Renaissance paintings' (R. Smith, 'Art in Review: John Currin at Andrea Rosen Gallery', in the New York Times, 7 November 1997). Currin parallels these compositional elements reminiscent with stock commercial imagery produced in America during the 1940s and 1950s, a theme also taken up by Francis Picabia, an artist whose work Currin greatly admires. By rendering such kitsch imagery in an anti-painterly technique, Currin highlights the saccharine attempts of contemporary visual culture to capture these platitudes in print for all eternity. This conflation of high and low 'shows how much of life is lived not through one's own eyes. That's what I find compelling about using imagery from the advertising industry' (J. Currin, quoted in 'Interview with Rochelle Steiner', John Currin, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Serpentine Gallery, London, 2003, p. 81). And yet, by re-situating this imagery within the discipline of high art, and specifically figurative painting, Currin re-contextualises the medium in this post-modern world, and ultimately validates its place in the contemporary canon.
With a steadfast devotion to the medium of painting at a time when it was deeply unpopular, Currin manipulates with an almost alchemical dexterity a host of painterly techniques for his own descriptive ends. There is a continuous vacillation in the present work's multiple painterly applications between idealisation, pastiche, and abstraction. Currin highlights that which is imperfect or jarring in imagery by contrasting the highly finished style of his figures with faces that are thickly built up in numerous colours of paint with a palette knife, leaving them mottled and blemished through each successive gestural swathe. Indeed his penchant for dysmorphia allows Currin to touch upon the synthetically distorted visions of American women throughout popular media imagery. Currin has maintained that these two types of paint applications symbolise different kinds of intimacy, the idealised and the real. 'The palette knife reminds me of the way it feels when you ruin something with love. You can't improve it, you can't smooth it out-it only gets worse the more you touch it. The more love you show, the more you destroy it' (J. Currin, quoted in K. Vander Weg (ed.), John Currin, New York 2006, p. 192).