John Currin is one of a new group of painters who has sought to resurrect figurative painting from its moribund state in contemporary art. Yet, rather than merely returning to the visual language of nineteenth-century portraiture, he has adopted its conventions while brandishing retrograde imagery grounded in clich. This marriage of thrift-store imagery with a classic and virtuosic painting technique creates an ironic confrontation in the work between meaning and representation that remains ambiguously unresolved.
As Currin states, "I've always liked things that pretend they're sensationalistic entertainment yet have a hidden or deeper structure--something that's absolutely mediocre but perfect, like a soft-rock song that's perfectly memorable, that has this incredibly long life and persistence, that's so average but crystalline" (quoted in John Currin: Oeuvres/Works 1989-1995, Limoges, 1995, p. 45).
John Currin's early "portraits" of adolescent girls were derived from high school yearbook pictures from the 1970s, blending cultural nostalgia with an almost palpable repressed sexuality. Their blank stares and generic features suggest a cultural stereotype of submissiveness and vulnerability which parodies their role as passive objects. While each portrait reveals the individual characterics of his female subjects along with an actual name, there is only slight variation between dress, hairstyle and pose suggesting a likeness and interchangeability between these typically white, middle class girls. The present portrait of a young African-American girl may have been inspired by an actual person, yet remains anonymously Untitled. Like her blond, Midwestern counterparts, she appears unique yet generic, oddly de-politicized and divorced from any exterior context.