John Currin at the Whitney

The John Currin show opened at the Whitney Museum on Wednesday evening. Deborah Solomon’s feature article about Currin appeared in last Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine. Michael Kimmelman’s review is in today’s NYTimes.

This “mid-career” survey of Currin’s paintings range from portraits done in the late ’80s to more complex contemporary genre paintings with riffs on art historical subject matter and popular illustrations. The grand finale is the just-completed Thanksgiving, featured in Solomon’s article and varnished by Currin at the Whitney days before the show opened.

Because this is the retrospective of a 41 year-old artist, viewers can witness the development of a young painter from that awkward stage, just out of graduate school, when one is looking for a practice that will engage the issues that one feels closest to while striking out in an original way. In Currin’s case, we see him feeling his way out of late modernist abstraction and into a sardonic postmodern figurative style. The early portraits, in general, are stiff and austere; the technique flat-footed and cautious; the references one-dimensional. The compositions and subject matter become more intriguing and self-consciously transgressive in the mid-nineties, although here one senses that Currin is trying too hard to be clever, outrageous, and politically incorrect.

The rule of thumb in art school lore is that it takes about ten years after completing the MFA for an artist to mature. The Whitney exhibition is evidence for the truth of that claim. It’s not until the late ’90s that Currin achieves a reasonable measure of confidence in his abilities and command of his materials.

Most of what one reads in the reviews of Currin’s recent work is true. The visual references to Durer, Baldung, Cranach, Van Eyck, Pontormo, Norman Rockwell, etc. are all there along with symbolic play, surreal iconography, and implied narratives. But the real question is where all this is leading him. How can Currin take his work to another level?

There are two possibilities, one more risky but potentially a lot more exciting than the other. First of all, the artists cited as sources for his recent work all had a kind of ready-made subject matter. The pre-modern artists depicted biblical, classical, and mythological characters and scenes. Rockwell, of course, illustrated scenes from family, community, and everyday American life. That route is no longer open to the contemporary artist for all sorts of reasons. But Currin’s technical accomplishment as a figurative painter cannot be an end in itself. He needs the narrative to enrich the work and to “thicken the plot”.

So the first, admittedly more conservative and less intriguing, option is to take as your subject matter scenes from widely read contemporary novels. This gives you an enormous range of subjects to work with and provides sufficient grist for the critical mill. Disguised references, subtle comments, and playful subtexts could lead to a large body of work in many different mediums. Of course, you’d have to do some reading. But that should be a pleasure, right?

The other, more adventurous, option is to borrow powerful and significant scenes and figures from contemporary cinema. This may seem a strange suggestion given that the source material is already an image, and perhaps a powerful one at that. But it has the advantage of allowing one to play with the visual puns and levels of interpretation that arise from multiply embedded images. And if you combine the two approaches by taking images or characters from a movie which is itself based on a novel, the complexity and levels of analysis can be extended. Consider, for example, the subjects one might poach from The Hours. Not only do you have the background of the original story in the form of a novel to play with, but there are additional and deeper links to Mrs. Dalloway as a source for Michael Cunningham’s book, as well as the connections out from the actors (Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, etc.) to the traces of the other characters they’ve played.

But then you’d have to read books and watch movies, which could take a lot of time, especially with a young child at home and all those dishes to wash and parties to attend.

[Thanks to Joe Salvatore for exploring the possibilities with me and adding to my hopelessly impoverished knowledge of literature.]

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