An early example of John Currin’s renowned figurative practice, Young Man, 1992, imbues its subject with a sense of enigmatic poise. Classically composed, highly stylised and painted in the manner of traditional portraiture, Currin’s figure is centrally placed, carefully modeled through light and shade against a baize-like background. Operating at a time when the contemporary art world had declared painting dead, Currin cultivated an ability to destabilise through a language of ostensibly well-established tropes. Indeed, as we contemplate the young man himself, we realise that this is far from an exercise in pastiche. In his effeminate, almost androgynous appearance, Currin’s subject is a fundamentally postmodern protagonist, charged with an ambiguity that offsets the artist’s anachronistic painterly vocabulary. In disturbing the relationship between form and content, Currin’s beguiling figure draws the viewer into a dialogue in which we are continually prompted to question our assumptions.
Throughout the 1990s, Currin developed a pictorial style geared towards questioning social norms, as well as challenging artistic trends towards self-critical irony. Building a rich repertoire of characters inspired by societal roles, Currin’s practice employs traditional painterly techniques whilst drawing on aspects of contemporary visual culture in a manner similar to Francis Picabia, an artist he greatly admired. Yet within Currin’s ever-expanding line-up of social types – from schoolgirls to domesticated husbands to middle-aged socialite women – the present work occupies a poignant position. Exuding an aura of self-reflection and humility, Young Man is not a hard-lined stereotype; instead, the artist is at pains to capture the unique essence of his imagined subject, imbuing the work with a sense of expressive depth and formal elegance. A contemporary embodiment of classical aesthetics within an increasingly diverse social and artistic landscape, Young Man possesses a quiet dignity that repeatedly arrests the viewer’s gaze.