Lounging on a luxurious pillow, John Currin’s The Collaborator presents the viewer with a relaxed female figure wearing nothing but stockings. The drapery behind her frames her body creating a dramatic and theatrical backdrop to the scene. The woman sits as if enshrined in her surroundings with her hand and foot hanging outside the frame of the composition. Her body is reminiscent of classical nudes while her stockings and pose mimic those of Victorian pornographic photographs. The Collaborator demonstrates a synthesis of John Currin’s most iconic and recognizable styles. Art historically charged, sexually explicit and incorporating his wife Rachel, The Collaborator is a testament to the artist’s progression throughout his career. The delicacy and mastery in rendering the subject’s skin reveals Currin’s painterly skills as the painting both celebrates and offers the nude female form in both its historical and sensual glory.
The artist’s wife, Rachel Feinstein, has appeared frequently in his paintings since their marriage. Her arrival in his life changed the trajectory of his oeuvre from angst ridden images of women’s deformed and critically observed bodies into celebrations of the female form. The frustration that charged his work before their relationship began is replaced by a softened gaze on the female figure, his engagement with the human form in art history and a reemphasis of his own painterly skills. The artist himself avoids the idea of a muse saying “I find the idea of the muse kinda corny. I think of the poet with a nude ghost in a Poussin picture. But when I met Rachel I felt that I could connect with some principles that moved my art along, that had some freedom from the petty things in my own personality” (J. Currin quoted in “We are not a muse” by Jessica Berens in The Observer, 30 August 2003).
Though the artist refuses to label his wife as his muse, she is an acknowledged contributor to his artistic practice and her trace in the canvas can be seen in the face of the subject and celebration and presentation of female beauty. Rachel appears in many of his art historically inspired paintings of the early 2000’s such as Nude on a Table, 2001. In this work, Currin directly appropriates the composition of Caracci’s The Dead Christ and superimposed his wife’s head on the body. The injection of this contemporary figure into his art historically charged scenes adds gravitas to the artist’s figural painting. After his exploration of High Renaissance and Mannerist compositions, Currin’s next series in the mid-2000s appropriated pornographic images and signified his return to the sexual gaze-driven works of his early career.
The present figure demonstrates the synthesis of these two styles by being both historically positioned and sexuality explicit. By composing the figure in a pose reminiscent of early twentieth century sex symbols with exposed, loose stockings signifying her modern aesthetic, the artist includes the now familiar face and coloring of his wife Rachel. Her hair however is thin and short rather than the luxurious long locks for which the artist is most typically known. The short and wispy hair is at odds with the healthy and milky complexion of the subject’s skin providing the first indication that something unsettling is going on beyond the frame. The figure also does not possess the typically self-assured and joyous look of other Rachel figures. Her expression is one of annoyance bordering on discomfort and her eyes fail to meet the viewer as if looking just beyond the immediate gaze of the painter.
The pose of the figure’s crossed legs and exposed chest facing the viewer is also reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s Tambourine of 1926 in which the figure casually slumps in a chair looking, opening herself to the viewer as if on display. The nude female figure in both of these scenes demonstrates everyday nudity. Both are aware of being viewed, but comfortable and open in their respective poses. In The Collaborator classical nude of art history has been harnessed by the parallel pornographic expressionism of Egon Schiele, typified in his Green Nude with Stockings of 1918 and Gustave Courbet’s Woman in White Stockings of 1861 both of which echo the development of the fetish culture surrounding stockings.
The stocking as an accessory employed by artists to both cover and reveal their subject continues to pervade popular culture and sexualized iconography. By wearing stockings the figure’s act of undressing is implied. Stockings draw the viewer’s attention to subject’s nudity and strengthens the underlying erotic and exploitive undercurrents of the painting. She is available and open to the consumption of the viewer, if he pays the right price. The use of stockings fetishizes the female form as demonstrated in promotional stills for the 1967 film The Graduate, which depicts Dustin Hofmann staring at Mrs Robinson’s stockinged leg.
The exploration of the female body and society’s consumption of it is also explored in a parallel way by Lucian Freud whose images of naked bodies on beds are meticulously rendered by the artist. In his series of paintings of the model Kate Moss, Freud paints a woman who’s frequently seen nude body is captured by in photographs rather than paint. The medium implies a more immediate and intimate engagement with the subject. The same can be said of Currin’s The Collaborator whose exposed body feels immediately available and open to the viewer as if inviting the male gaze to choose her for the night. Gerhard Richter also explored the commodification of sex in his series of German burlesque prostitutes. The subject’s very open and graphic bodies shock the viewer with their vulgarity. In this case, the female figures are also wearing stockings connecting them again to the burlesque appetite of the early twentieth century.
The Collaborator exemplifies Currin’s continued exploration of society’s engagement with nudity and sexual excitement. He elevates the pornographic images of fetish photography to high art firstly through the introduction of his own wife as the subject and secondly by positioning her in a pose reminiscent of nudes of classical antiquity. By mixing the hierarchies of nude imagery, Currin masterfully demands the viewer to question dichotomy of high and low pleasures.