Acclaimed for his distinctive reinvention of figure painting and genre scenes, John Currin’s characteristic figures and unique compositions mine the history of art while colliding headlong with the world of advertisements and popular culture. The seemingly prosaic Girl on a Hill is a striking example of the artist’s ability to infuse trope-driven configurations with art historical referents and a surreal air indebted to the artist’s understanding of traditional techniques and prodigious ability with a brush. Peter Schjeldahl noted: “[Currin’s] figuration is so kinesthetically affecting that it takes a viewer time to notice that, say, a figure’s right arm is roughly twice as long as her left one. Currin’s women may be unreal (he never works from models and rarely from photographs), but they sure are actual. This art bursts upon our imagination before we can organize ourselves to keep it out” (P. Schjeldahl, “The Elegant Scavenger,” New Yorker, February 22, 1999). By working with a recognizable visual structure, Currin is able to pull the viewer in just as quickly as his bizarrely detached subjects work to keep us at arm’s length. This unique approach to stylized figuration has influenced countless artists and, alongside artists like Jenny Saville and Elizabeth Peyton, has resulted in a revival of traditional methods and subjects that tangle with our notions of progressive painting while still remaining relevant in an age emerging from the iron grip of abstraction.
I long for California where I grew up… When I see the yellow grassy hills of Northern California and the way that the clouds go behind them, it makes me want to cry. I wanted to make that place…”
Currin’s women may be unreal (he never works from models and rarely from photographs), but they sure are actual. This art bursts upon our imagination before we can organize ourselves to keep it out.”
Sitting atop the titular hill, a girl in a full-length blue dress turns to her right and stares off into the distance. Her hair falls to the middle of her back and its strawberry blonde hue bears more than a passing resemblance to the tufts of grass in which she sits. The vegetation is executed in thick, painterly strokes with small flowers strewn throughout. The foreground is full and bursting, but the flatness of the sky opens the composition up to an airy, atmospheric space that results in a sense of balance and spatial harmony. Currin grew up on the West Coast, and the landscape of his youth often factors into his work. He once reminisced, “I long for California where I grew up… When I see the yellow grassy hills of Northern California and the way that the clouds go behind them, it makes me want to cry. I wanted to make that place,” adding wryly, “The girls were only there because you have to have something in the centre” (J. Currin, quoted in R. Steiner, John Currin, exh. cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2003, p. 85).
The technique brings you in, the historical references get you going, but the opacity keeps you at arm’s length.”
Currin has a knack for melding art historical references together into his own unmistakable style. In this instance, the wheatfields of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World blend seamlessly with an obvious allusion to an almost Mannerist depiction of the sky. The nostalgic airs of Norman Rockwell and other early 20th-century figurative painters are injected into the composition as well, but Currin stymies any reading of this work as derivative with his curious rendering of the girl’s face and her glassy-eyed stare. Critic Jerry Saltz writes of Currin's work, "The technique brings you in, the historical references get you going, but the opacity keeps you at arm's length" (J. Saltz, "The Redemption of a Breast Man", Village Voice, November 1999, p. 32). Slightly abstracted and almost cartoon-like, the large eyes and doll-like features are at odds with the exquisite detail of the fabric, grass, and hair. The viewer tries to connect with the sitter, but her eyes look past us at something unknown and unknowable.
This gift for total absorption of a wild diversity of images that respects neither art-historical chronology nor pecking orders of high and low art has made it possible for Currin to reinvent the tired category of genre painting.”
Currin’s interest in mastering techniques and nodding to his sources through visual allusion is what makes his canvases so fresh. And yet, for all the historical references and similarities to traditional modes of painting, Girl on a Hill was birthed from an old advertisement for Harley Davidson motorcycles. In this magazine source, a blonde woman sits on a bike and looks over her shoulder at the reader, beckoning them to hit the road with her. Currin thereby aligns himself with the lineage of Pop and artists like Lichtenstein who appropriated and altered extant materials to serve as their subjects and compositional guidelines. Robert Rosenblum noted the artist’s gift for anachronism and style amalgamation when he wrote: "This gift for total absorption of a wild diversity of images that respects neither art-historical chronology nor pecking orders of high and low art has made it possible for Currin to reinvent the tired category of genre painting" (R. Rosenblum, "John Currin and the American Grotesque", in John Currin, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, p.18). By extracting recognizable aspects from popular culture, advertisements, and art history in equal measure, Currin is able to craft an image that seems familiar but is alien enough to captivate the viewer and beseeches them to answer its haunting gaze.
Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).