In 2000, the year in which Currin made this study for Stamford After Brunch, the art world had begun to appreciate and celebrate the full complexity of his practice. The subversive framework he had hidden behind his ultra-traditional technique, which rested on a profound understanding of Art History, was starting to be recognized on an international scale. Over the course of his career, Currin had purposefully backed himself to take the most obsolete method of making art he could – academicised, almost nineteenth-century, figurative painting - and used it to make pictures that achieve something that no other method of making art could. His pictures tell us about the way we understand paintings, our psychological relationship to them and how they reach out to us from the past and persist in the present. As Norman Bryson has written, ‘Currin’s strategy was like a wager against the history of modern art’ (N. Bryson, ‘Maudit: John Currin and Morphology,’ in John Currin, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2006, p. 16).
With this delicate ink, whose easy flair calls to mind the work of a domesticated Honore Daumier, Currin started with a photograph from a catalogue of advertising images. These photographs - customarily considered void of all the qualities we might hope to find in a picture - were a habitual starting point for Currin at the time. He said of this painting that the challenge was ‘to take a hideous advertising image and pull something real out of something really fake’ (J. Currin, quoted in John Currin, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2006, p. 258). And so the late November sun that pours through icy windows in southern Connecticut lights up a trio of young wives enjoying martinis, cigars and warm conversation. The gaiety of the scene is ever so subtly tempered by the unorthodox timing of the refreshments they are enjoying and by the delicate anatomical manipulations that come so naturally to Currin. The limbs of the figures are subjected to a mannerist distortion, thin and short in contrast to their heads which converge conspiratorially at the centre of the composition. The serenity of the tableau is so gently undermined by these preparatory suggestions that the innate sentimentality of the original advertising image is at once exposed, sympathized with and overcome.
There is both irony and sincerity in this confected scene. It has been said of Currin that he has ‘found a fetish for style and technique’ and it is as a result of this honest erotics of the image that Currin’s works reward us for our familiarity with the subjects he depicts (M. Van de Walle, ‘Against Nature’, Parkett, no. 65, 2002, p. 32). He understands, as Bryson pointed out, that ‘the force field of the figurative image, the image that centers on the face and body, is inescapable’ (N. Bryson ‘Maudit: John Currin and Morphology,’ in John Currin, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2006, p. 19). Much of modern art has sought, very often for good reason, to eradicate the pleasure that emanates from that force field. Currin reminds us, however, that images will always coerce us into enjoying them, that we look at them for pleasure and that the aesthetics of pleasure find a natural home in figurative painting.