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John Currin, “Maenads” (2015), oil on canvas, 48 x 36 x 1 1/4 inches (all photos courtesy Gagosian Gallery)

LOS ANGELES — John Currin’s bizarre vignettes of feminine allure are bound to arouse some rather rich and complicated feelings in the viewer, and that is a good thing. His current show at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, his first Los Angeles–area exhibition in 10 years, consists of 11 new oil paintings of invented muses that are magnetic in their beauty and weirdly compelling in their historically inspired, imagined settings.

Working with the confidence of a chef who knows his ingredients well, Currin spices his paintings with references borrowed from high and low culture and leavens them with humor. The most prevalent flavor in Currin’s current stylistic mix is Mannerism, the sensual and decadent “late style” that charmed Venetian aristocrats in the late 16th century, and provided a counterpoint to the previous generation’s fixation on Classicism. In particular, the portraits of Pontormo (1494–1557), a Florentine Mannerist, seem to haunt the delicate features of several of Currin’s invented women. Pontormo’s influence is also apparent in a certain floating, self-conscious langour present in a number of their poses.

“Maenads” (detail)

One painting of a Neo-Mannerist flavor, titled “Maenads,” references the frenzied female followers of Dionysius: “Maenads” roughly translates to “the raving ones.” In Currin’s composition, a nearly nude, auburn-haired beauty with two apples on her knee rocks forward on a tasseled golden pillow. Another woman, who floats behind the right shoulder of the central figure, pleasures herself — or probably pleasures herself — on a billowing cloud of pinkish fabric. A third beauty on the left looks away while possibly helping with the possible pleasuring: Currin teases his viewers, and himself, by obscuring the sexual particulars.

Over the past few years Currin has been working with pornographic imagery, and several of the works on view at Gagosian reveal glimpses of recycled porno painted with an Old Master touch. If “Maenads” seems hard to place in terms of time and culture, keep in mind that Currin has syncretized what you would normally think of as incompatible sources — I get Vogue, Hustler, Pontormo, and possibly the Bed, Bath & Beyond fall catalogue — into a single composition. And somehow it works 

Of course, part of the reason Currin is able to do what he does is that his skills as a painter continue to grow. He has been working on textured canvases, including some with a herringbone weave, and when his work is viewed in person, Currin’s bravura brushwork and ability to render soft flesh, reflective fabrics, and decorative patterns is impressive.

Parmagiannino, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1524), oil on convex wood panel, 9.6 inches in diameter (courtesy Wikimedia)

The inspiration for another of Currin’s striking new paintings — “Nude in a Convex Mirror” — seems to come from another Mannerist: Parmigianino (1503–1540). His remarkble “Self-Portait in a Convex Mirror” was created when the artist was only twenty-one and presented to Pope Clement VII as an advertisement of his talent. Working on a curved wooden panel, Parmigianino used a convex mirror’s distortion to emphasize his pale, pinky-ringed hand: it makes his touch almost available.

Currin’s tour de force uses a similar effect to expand a nude woman’s shapely ass into a stupendous, tondo-filling monument of sensuality. Call it gimmicky if you want, but I found this painting both very funny and very beautiful. In fact, Currin’s paintings are all slightly humorous and silly, as if he wants to remind us that rendering beauty without levity carries the risk of achieving dull, chilly perfection.

John Currin, “Nude in a Convex Mirror” (2015), oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches

Mannerism works for Currin because it is an aristocratic style that favors invention. In a certain unexpected way, Mannerist distortion has also brought out a Picassian aspect in Currin’s work. Looking over the massive buttocks of “Nude in a Convex Mirror,” I was reminded of a talk I heard by Françoise Gilot, the mother of two of Picasso’s children. She recounted that Picasso often had dreams in which women and parts of their bodies became very large or very small. The exaggerated eroticism of Currin’s callipygean tondo suggests that a new direction for his work might be to follow Picasso’s lead and use distortions of scale for more expressive purposes.

In contrast, Currin’s painting “Altar,” which shows us a single woman with a suggestively placed hand, is more optically conventional. It is also peculiar: the figure’s improbable acorn-shaped fabric hat adds quirk to what might otherwise come across as a rather dated piece of soft-core erotica. The work succeeds somewhat better as an allegory of painting as a form of mental masturbation.

John Currin, “Altar” (2015), oil on canvas, 40 x 28 x 1 1/4 inches

“Altar” is a sweet and sour picture and it brings up an issue often raised by the acrid humor in Currin’s work: he frequently treats his subjects of both sexes with a measured contempt. This invariably has the paradoxical effect of making the works more appealing, and in the case of Currin’s current paintings of women, it makes their saccharine sweetness tolerable.

Taken too literally, it may be easy to find things to dislike about this show. Some might argue that Currin is just another in a long line of men who objectify women for their own purposes. Then again, it is important to realize that Currin paints from his imagination, and seeing these women as “real” in any way leads down the wrong path entirely. While products of an artist’s erotic musings, the works are pure inventions, drawing viewers into a rich conversation with unexpected fusions of high and low culture.

John Currin continues at Gagosian Gallery (456 North Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, California) through April 11. 

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John Seed

John Seed is a professor of art and art history at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California. Seed has written about art and artists for Arts of Asia, Art Ltd., Catamaran, Harvard Magazine, International...

19 replies on “John Currin’s Silly Porn-Inspired Portraits Somehow Work”

  1. Does it somehow make it better that the women he depicts aren’t “real?” Do “musings” have no connection to physical bodies?

    Currin is gross. The fewer Currins the better. Show him the door and send Mark Ryden and Ray Caesar out with him.

  2. I find the far better and deeper work in this vein by Lisa Yuskavage and Cecily Brown FAR more interesting.

  3. Not Ingres, more like Playbook fetish fantasy. Oh well, still have Pearlstein & Wesselmann. Like the Parmagiannino.

  4. i don’t see the “porn” … looks more like erotic candy lite to me. [Balthus would be erotic candy heavy] definitely too commercial though, as is most of the contemporary artworld product driven by capitalism. wanna make real art? withdraw from the influence and tyranny of capitalism and it’s church dogma of profit and start saying and producing art that stimulates the intellectual evolution to eutopia. [and disregard those “cloud people” that pivel you an idealistic dreamer]

  5. I want to see this ‘mannerist erotica’ or just plain old erotica performed by the great Chuck Close. Now that would be some nice eye candy.

  6. I could never figure out why this guy got famous. Dreary WPA-era-photographic-subject-looking women with big boobs who were all Caucasian are what got him into the big shows. His models still look like they need a lot more vitamin B and iron and less porridge and beer. This new batch shows nothing new or exciting at all. Why does he find limp, flaccid and flabby appealing? I disagree with the author: the techniques may work but, for me, the art does not work at all. I don’t find anything erotic about it either. Or pornographic. Just yuck and yawn, like Kimmy’s big shiny ass.

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