Accepting that it is possible to be both progressive and traditional in this moment, then John Currin has surely triumphed in this unusual artistic accomplishment. Controversial and driven by his own unique vision, Currin is heralded as one of the most important artists of his generation and more specifically in the powerful position of re-directing art history back to discussions of painting's relevance and closing the gap in the disjointed lineage of genre painting. Homemade Pasta is a major work by the artist, complete with present-day cultural complexities and multiple art historical precedents, and his most important work to come to auction. Despite the recent date of this painting, most of the other works from the period are already in important museum collections, including the Carnegie Museum of Art, The Tate Modern and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
John Currin came of age in the 1990s in New York, where his first one-person gallery show was at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, then still in SoHo in 1992. The show consisted of small format paintings of mostly older women who, while attractive in some subterranean way, were not glamorized as objects of desire the way portraits of women are historically. Currin has always relied on tradition, if only to subvert it. The show garnered mixed reviews, and it seems some critics, most notably Kim Levin of the Village Voice was not ready to expand her definition of Feminist exploration to include a straight man's vision of women in their august years. Levin wrote, "..They are awful paintings. Boycott this show." (Kim Levin, Village Voice, April 21, 1992, p.77). More than other subjects, figurative works tend to evoke the strongest of reactions, and one need only think of Andy Warhol's Race Riot pictures, Gerhard Richter's Baader Meinhof series, or for that matter, Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary painting at the Brooklyn Museum that enraged then-New York mayor Rudy Guliani.
Currin's art historical references reach back centuries. Renaissance painting, particularly Cranach's frozen Venuses and Boticelli's excessive female forms are major influences. Compositionally, Currin employs a classical sense of organization. Favoring the center of the canvas as the vortex of action and energy, their compositions are nearly perfect concise narratives, where the story can be told from the center outward, and backgrounds serve to add nuance. Nineteenth century painters such as Boucher are studied and mined for their flowery and abundant nudes. American genre paintings of all types seem to compel Currin. Norman Rockwell's obvious and pleasing narratives, as well as Maxfield Parish's glibly stylized works can be seen as precursors to Currin, particularly in their desire to tell a simple and innocent story. In effectively the same format as Rockwell and Parish, Currin seeks to bring a truly contemporary message to his works and interweaves the social, the political and the humorous, at times with impunity. Charmed by the old-fashioned but a product of contemporary art, Currin states, " Well, in a funny way I feel weirdly brand-new, because it is so anachronistic to paint. Right now I'm reading The Quiet American by Graham Greene. And you can't help but feel that being an American is like having deep principles, but not being aware of them, and everything you do consciously is stupid, clownlike. I think I have great skills and great sensitivity to paint, and I think I understand European painting, but sometimes I feel like my American-ness is a handicap or a clown outfit that I am constantly find myself in. There is nothing I can do about it." (Interview with John Currin by Rochelle Steiner in John Currin, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, p.83).
It seems fair to say that there are few painters today that revere the figure more than John Currin. Throughout his oeuvre, from his early portraits, sexy nudes and narrative multi-figural compositions, his works are exuberant celebrations of the body. As the art historian Robert Rosenblum states "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" (Robert Rosenblum, "John Currin and the American Grotesque" in John Currin, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, p.18).
In Homemade Pasta, Currin paints a blissfully dull domestic scene-a couple standing in their kitchen engaged in the clichi gourmet act of home-making pasta. The Italian red checkered apron, restaurant-style wire rack shelving, and the semi-professional hand grinder tell the viewers that we are in a late twentieth century urban American kitchen, influenced by the do-it-yourself sophistication of television cooking shows, Martha Stewart and the American desire to embrace international cuisines. In Currin's matter-of-fact rendering, the couple of today is a gay male couple. They are exquisitely realized in perfect detail and Currin's painterly virtuosity is flexed. But contrary to historical imagery of gay male couples (if there is such a thing), they are the antithesis of sexual beings. Currin has been able to demonstrate that the two men share affection for another without actually showing it. Like love scenes in the movies, we are all connoisseurs of "the real thing" versus unconvincing moaning off camera. Whomever the pair, Currin imaged the rapport between his subjects as a domestication of gay male domesticity to the point of total banality.
The image is so powerful, not because a happy gay couple is a politically correct emblem, but because in Currin's words, "It is interesting to me that people feel automatically guilty, kind of uncomfortable, when they look at that painting. An image of two men has a strange authority, an ability to make liberal people cringe and get nervous about what they are going to say. The same way images of black people make people nervous." (Interview with John Currin by Rochelle Steiner in John Currin, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, p.84). The subjects in Homemade Pasta speak to a truism about gay domestic life in the post-AIDS era--cozy at home, yearning for marriage rights, warm and cozy guys who seem to vaguely look alike as a side effect of all their years together. While the subjects are utterly ordinary looking, Currin has not forgotten their subtle affectations--thick middles and narrow shoulders, elongated, delicate fingers, hairless faces. The painting is clearly affectionately rendered, but Currin's attention to detail can make even the gay viewer squeamish. So startlingly true to life, it's gay life sans lifestyle.
As Currin takes his place in art history, his indelible mark will no doubt be on how he re-affirmed the power of genre painting. By looking at scenes from everyday life with his unique lens of unconventional beauty, Currin brings to light just how socially and aesthetically transgressive turn of the millennium American culture looks. Busty females at the bra shop, nude women of impossible proportions intertwined against a black backdrop, two bare-backed men biblically perched on the back of a fishing boat, a gay couple preparing a meal in their kitchen--Currin is never short on compelling, if even at times archetypal visuals. He true genius however is his capacity to re-convert all of us again to the luscious spectacle of great painting.
Maxfield Parrish, Two Chefs at a Table, 1925 Private collection Courtesy: The American Illustrators Gallery