Combining classical painterly sensibilities with irreverent post-modern panache, the work of American painter John Currin shocks and seduces in equal measure. Making pictures that are controversial as they are compelling, Currin has breathed fresh life into contemporary figurative painting. With its meticulously executed finish and sexually explicit subject matter, Reunion exemplifies the potency of the paradox that lies behind all Currin's artistic pursuits. Painted in 2008, the work is based on part of the first body of works inspired by pornographic imagery taken from the internet, yet is painted with a realistic precision that deliberately emulates the techniques of Renaissance and Old Master painters. "I believe in the old idea of technique," Currin told The New York Times in 2003. "I believe you need it if you're going to have magic and genius and masterpieces. No one would question the value of technique in any other field. No one would say that a tennis player would be better if only he could stop hitting the ball,'' (J. Currin, "Mr. Bodacious," The New York Times, November 16, 2003.)
Reunion is especially unusual in being painted on a circular canvas, and Currin has adeptly embraced the unique way in which a spherical composition can focus attention on a central form or idea. Here, our concentration is drawn to a sensuous ideal of feminine beauty, and attends to her pleasure alone. Strawberry blonde curls tumbling across her face, Reunion depicts the female muse who has now become a familiar presence within Currin's work. Leaning back on a man's bare chest, she lets his hands caress her, her eyes half closed in ecstasy, ruby lips parted and cheeks flushed. The scene is bathed in a golden light; the female flesh is rendered with smooth, unseen brushstrokes in tones of milky white and the palest of pinks. This provides a descriptive contrast with the darker colorings of the anonymous man, most evident in the rugged execution of his hands as they grasp at her bare breasts, which are small and high like those of a Renaissance nude.
The skillfully recorded anachronistic, stylized body type we see in this work is a continuation of Currin's deliberate quotation of art historical tropes, which echoes and emphasizes his distinctively traditional painterly style. Aside from its erotic content, there are other hints of modernity within in Reunion that encourage the viewer to draw other, more contemporary associations from the scene - the man's shirt and his 1970s style moustache, for instance; her gold hoop earring. As Robert Rosenblum has said, Currin fuses "venerable past and vulgar present" to engender "a perfect hybrid that lives in both worlds," (R. Rosenblum, 'John Currin and the American Grotesque' John Currin, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2003, p. 15). It is this strange juxtaposition of reverence and titillation that lends Currin's work its disorientating energy. The frisson that is caused by bestowing the gravitas of historical oil painting, with all its ensuing connotations of unquestioned authority and validity within the establishment, upon the underground, kitsch aesthetic of pornographic entertainment, is almost palpable.
The unbridled lasciviousness of the scene depicted in Reunion is characteristic of Currin's penchant for embellished, or even caricaturized depictions of masculinity and femininity. In an early interview, he describes the myriad of visual influences that come together to form one of his paintings: "It's always me remembering an old master and combining it with contemporary ad images...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).
Reunion is a part of the first of an important series of works containing boldly sexual subject matter. Pornographic imagery has proved to be particularly stimulating for the artist and this period marked a new direction for Currin, one that he continues to pursue today. A significant component of this inspiration derives from pornography's particular aesthetic. Currin discovered that the flesh on flesh, interconnected, visceral qualities found in the mise-en-scène of pornographic photography and film reminded him of classical paintings of nudes that he had so long admired. "I love grand, classically nude paintings," he has said. "There is really no situation where plausibly you have criss-crossing limbs and stuff like that except in pornography," (J. Currin, quoted in D. Usborne, 'John Currin: The filth and the fury', in The Independent, March 16, 2008).
Currin was intrigued by the idea that pornographic imagery could challenge the emotive potential of the painting against that of the photograph. "I thought it would be interesting to make them explicit and see if there is any mystery or any space left after you completely drain the potential. It's like when you don't show things, you build up a kind of voltage. So what happens if you totally open it up? Is the painting going to have any kind of energy at all? In a way, these are very un sexual paintings," (ibid.).