“Sting. Sting would be another person who’s a hero. The music he’s created over the years, I don’t really listen to it, but the fact that he’s making it, I respect that.— Owen Wilson as Hansel the male model, in the movie Zoolander


The Hansel quote pretty much sums up how I feel about the painter John Currin: don’t have all that much interest in the actual work that John Currin is doing, but I really, really enjoyed the article about him in the January 28 New Yorker (unfortunately, not available online, except for a gallery of his recent work). Currin basically paints collaged scenes of images from internet porn sites in the style of the Old Masters (see the work-in-progress, “The Women Of Franklin Street,” above).

“I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it….You should never will a change in your work—you have to work an idea to death. I often find that the best things happen when you’re near the end.”

His technique is really fascinating:

The basic design of the new painting, his largest to date, was sketched out first in a grisaille undercoat of white, raw umber, and a binding agent of sun-thickened linseed oil, and Currin has just begun to build up the flesh tones. The faces of the women have very little detail as yet. To give me an idea of where he’s going, he brings over a printout of a photograph of the painting, which he has altered with Photoshop, a method he finds more convenient than drawing. Hanging just to the right of the new painting is a small oil-on-canvas study, fairly rough but with more detail and in color. “Actually, I posed for the body,” he says, indicating the left-hand figure in the painting. He often uses his own hands, arms, or face (viewed in a mirror) for the initial image, in preference to hiring live models. “When I get people to pose for me, it almost never works,” he explains. (This does not apply to his wife, Rachel, whose wide-set hazel eyes, pearly skin, and heart-shaped face he has used again and again in his paintings.)

Actually, the collage, Photoshop, the self-modelling…it reminded me a lot of Alison Bechdel’s technique for Fun Home.

I could really relate to what he had to say about meeting his wife:

“Meeting Rachel changed everything….I came to the conclusion that there is no misery in art. All art is about saying yes, and all art is about its own making. I just became overwhelmingly happy.”

And I dug some of the things he had to say about art-making:

“It doesn’t look good now…but a big part of painting is getting used to things not looking good while you work on them….Some [marks] are accidental and some are intentional. It’s great when the accidental becomes indistinguishable from the intentional. That’s when it begins to seem like a living thing.”

Worth tracking down.

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  1. says

    I’ve always thought it was a shame that such talent had to be wasted on a guy with no content in his work. He made a name for himself by painting women with huge breasts and everyone gets all excited because he’s doing it in the style of the old masters.
    But he’s essentially a latter day pin-up artist who is content to paint pictures of servile women. I mean what century do we live in anyway?

  2. says

    Four years ago you couldn’t open an art section of a newspaper without seeing a gushing review of Mr. Currin’s work, often praising him as the greatest living American artist (unless Matthew Barney had done something recently, in which case *he* was the greatest living American artist). I haven’t heard anything about Currin in a while so I’m surprised to see he’s gone further down the “net porn re-imagined” road instead of developing more interesting ideas within figurative painting. Seems hackneyed, but then again he’s always been labeled a high-concept kitsch artist, at least since he left Yale (see also: “Naked Bea Arthur”). He’s an incredibly talented painter, but I wish that his satire/commentary actually had some bite to it.

    His statement about meeting his wife and his subsequent view of art made me think of Molly Bloom’s affirmation. Why am I relating everything to literature lately?

  3. says

    Have I showed you my James Joyce mug? It has Molly’s soliloquy printed on it, and a bad-ass drawing of Joyce. There’s a terrific and sad story behind its acquisition … one which I will share with you next time you’re over.

    I knew absolutely nothing about Currin until I read this article, so I’m going to have to dig out my Complete New Yorker and read the older articles to see what the fuss was.

  4. says

    I also loved the “All art is about saying yes” specifically because I was totally influenced by the Modernists and though there is Joyce, there is also Eliot, who often spoke about “restraint” which is probably also a quality of the creative process worth considering, but I think maybe the idea of restraint is just as dangerous as always saying yes. I also loved the discussion on transparency and opacity, because I think the same qualities are important in writing. There is transparency and opacity in narrative structure, in voice, etc. As for him making porn “beautiful” he’s not really, is he? There’s a sickly, deformed, nervous quality about the characters he paints. There’s another article on the internet … that says this about Currin: “His joy is painting, talking about painting, thinking about painting. He is capable of talking for 10 minutes about a single brush stroke on one of his pictures …” There is a kind of beauty in that, I think, being in such a state that, for hours, all you think about is a brush stroke.

  5. says

    Hey Lindsay: Nah, I don’t think he’s making porn beautiful. I don’t really dig on his work — but I find his thoughts, process, and technique fascinating. I think you’re right: there’s a kind of beauty in being so intensely into your art…but! it can also keep you from seeing the big picture… (such as, stepping back and asking, “wait, why am I painting porn?” )

  6. BigSlickWillie says

    Quite Honestly I don’t see why people are talking of talents. Get out a little more. There are many many artist who can paint better than this. It’s just because he’s gotten a free ticket to fame for this concept, and other great realists are hidden in the dark, that it even appears that he is talented. It’s bullshit, plain and simple. He gives critics something to talk about therein it helps him, helps the papers, helps museums, helps sales. It’s all about money, it always is.

  7. Magan Stewart says

    Those are interesting and sad comments, from people who i assume are mature – and even college educated – adults. Porn… what is porn? What is porn to Austin, Lindsay, someone in China, me, etc.? Who and what defines what porn is? Please, “step back and look at the bigger picture”. Especially before you start discussing Joyce and Elliot, at least go back and read Joyce and Elliot again… with a much more open mind. What would one think of a photo of an peeled Banana? Currin is simple telling a story… and leaving it up to us, and hopefully 500 years into the future, to interpret. I think he is a very effective story teller. And I feel grateful and lucky to view such work in todays hypocritical society, etc…