The nude female form has long occupied artists in the history of Western painting and sculpture, but no other artist has approached the subject with such panache as John Currin. The artist’s virtuoso technique, in combination with a propensity to shock, revived painting at a time when the medium had been eclipsed by video and installation art. From his earliest canvases, Currin’s commitment to paint the female nude has always recognized the entanglement between content and form. As the artist himself has said, “I think that painting has always been essentially about women, about looking at things in the same way that a straight man looks at a woman. The urge to objectify is more a male urge than a female one, and painting is one of the most personal and succinct methods of male objectification of the female” (J. Currin, “Cherchez la femme PEINTRE,” Parkett, No. 37, 1993, p.146).
In Nice ‘n Easy, the luminous creamy skin of two nude women is highlighted by the velvety green background their bodies are presented upon. Their auburn hair is aloft, lifted by an unseen wind that gives the painting a “romantic,” as in relating to golden love, and “Romantic,” as in highly expressive of emotion, quality. The slighter woman on the left places her hand diagonally on the rounded belly of her companion, who looks wistfully into the distance. Currin has purposefully left the narrative ambiguous. It is unclear if the woman caught in a day dream is pregnant, especially since distended and exaggerated anatomies were a signature of the artist’s paintings of nude women up until the point that Nice ‘n Easy was painted. Small breasts, full round bellies and sinuous hips were also a signature of the Renaissance masters Sandro Botticelli and Lucas Cranach the Elder, whose canvases Currin looks to as inspiration.
John Currin introduced himself to the New York Art world in the early 1990s with paintings of women whom he described as “at a certain point in their lives where they cease to be actively engaged in work or sex, where they are at a stage of impotence, inactivity, suspension.” He did not “want to appropriate woman’s fertile potencies by painting it, rather [he] appropriated their stagnation as a mirror of how [he feels] all the time” (J. Currin, ibid.). The most recognizable painting from this series, the 1991 painting Bea Arthur Nude, depicts what the title describes, a nude portrait of the middle-aged star of the classic TV sitcom, The Golden Girls. Such paintings shocked audiences and critics alike in their audacity. Encouraging this response, Currin followed his portraits of nude, aging celebrities with women endowed with comically proportioned breasts and socialites whose plasticized faces contorted standards of beauty. The fresh-faced duo in Nice ‘n Easy were painted after these satirized spoofs of women, attempting to replicate the promises of advertisements. Part of a suite of paintings made just before Currin married the sculptor Rachel Feinstein, Nice ‘n Easy is suffused with his feelings about the event. In fact, Currin based many of these figures on his wife’s features. As he has said of this series, “The whole vibe of those paintings was about getting married. ...At that time I was trying to get away from social-political content in my work. I like the idea of just kind of getting lost in the reverie, which makes the paintings matter, makes it good, makes it great” (Ibid.).
In Nice ‘n Easy, Currin looks to images of the past rather than those circulating in his time for inspiration. The esteemed art historian Robert Rosenblum distinguished these women from the painted women of Currin’s past in the catalogue for the artist’s 2006 survey exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, “…many of these women seem to be the progeny of locker-room daydreams and porn magazines, others seem to have been born from the old-masters DNA, Currin is always collecting at museums. In fact, separating these two major sources of his invention may be beside the point, since his venerable past and vulgar present comes out as a perfect hybrid that lives in both worlds. To be sure, the collision of naked, real-life women and old-master nudes is hardly new to Western painting; witness Goya’s recasting of a Titian Venus as a sexually liberated Maja stripped of clothing, or Manet’s reincarnation of the same prototype as a Parisian courtesan, or, closer to the present, Otto Dix’s Germanic fusion of Cranach’s Venuses and Eves with Weimar Republic whores. Nevertheless, Currin’s absorption of the old masters is far more slippery than these abrupt contrasts of old and new, creating instead fluid metamorphoses that circulate through many unlikely image banks” (R. Rosenblum, “John Currin and the American Grotesque,” in John Currin, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2003, p. 16).
More so, Currin sees the act of painting, and the act of painting women in particular, to be infused with a potent and carnal sexual energy. According to the artist, “There are rituals of painting—like holding a brush, using oil paint, using a stretched canvas—which are very specific to the sexual needs of men when they are making art. ...The brush is a very erotic object and painters are very fetishistic about them. When you paint you can’t help reflecting on the fetishes that are the tools of painting. It painting you always find indications or assonant images for brushes, sex organs and so on. Courbet, of course, is a gold mine for all of this, being one of the first artists to make this relationship really literal—the landscape as woman, equating the source of a river with a pornographic image of a woman spreading her legs, the hair of the woman being the hair of a brush, the brush mark becoming the woman’s hair” (J. Currin, Parkett, ibid.). While other paintings in the artist’s oeuvre contain a biting, satirical critique, Nice ‘n Easy presents a softer side of John Currin’s capacities as a painter, while at the same time acknowledging one of the artist’s maxims, “All the time when I paint, I’m definitely painting about being a man. I paint women and that’s what my work’s about. I materialize this relationship on the canvas. Women are always the object of my paintings. The only part of you that tends not to be ironic is your desire. And the last place you can look to become a whole self again is in your sexual desire. I believe that sexuality proves the existence of an essences. And if art isn’t about essences then it’s worthless. ...Art that denies libidinal presence is pretty boring. This is where painting has a particularly hard time, because I don’t think it can ever be about distance” (J. Currin, Parkett, ibid., p. 147).