The biggest snow job in history is how high art in Western culture has largely been about ogling T&A under the guise of mythological allegory. Work by academic art stars like Bouguereau and Cabanel from the Paris Salon look like soft-core porn, and everybody knows that old master subjects like The Three Graces and The Judgement Of Paris are mostly a front for putting the female nude on display. John Currin has been shaking his moneymaker by inverting the relationship between traditional narrative and all-out ecstasy since the 1990s. While a typical 19th-century “music lesson” scene only suggested that more than a tickling of the ivories was at play, Currin’s version shows clothes ripped off and instruments flying. Some of his paintings leave little to the imagination, but it’s cool. They are a revelation of sorts
Besides having flat-out astonishing technical skill, Currin’s gift is making an awkwardly erotic moment feel eternal. The look on the central woman’s face In The Women of Franklin Street is timeless. She is the Mona Lisa of bewildered bemusement, as Currin’s sense of humor is both disarming and accessible. Often, you find yourself totally staring at boobs appreciating the way a bit of drapery falls and then you realize, “this girl has the most screwed-up rotten bunch of teeth I’ve ever seen.” Or in the case of The Old Fur, it takes a while before you notice that the subject is horribly out of proportion. If she stood up she’d look more like a buoy.
I suppose that’s the sad, cruel, and maybe even sexist part of his work. The girl showing off her breasts has no idea how messed up her grill is as she smiles away proudly. The fact that it’s so beautifully painted makes it even more difficult to untangle the sensory implications at play. Not to say that Currin’s work is without real sentiment, but his subjects rarely look up to confront the viewer, and when they do, often all you see is a slightly damaged dolt with great hair.
Currin’s famous painting of a topless Bea Arthur from 1991 remains his strongest Manet’s Olympia moment. At the time, Currin was working as an abstract painter, and I’m under the impression that this painting was mostly a joke. Nevertheless, he clearly respected his no-nonsense subject—Arthur stridently returns the viewer’s gaze in a way that few of his later subjects do.
Even when Currin isn’t messing with you, you end up on a search for things like weird tiny feet or ungainly arms. Thankfully, the masterful/awkward dichotomy seems to disappear in Madamoiselle. Here, a demure woman appears perfectly comfortable in her state of undress. While, in other works, Currin complicates the pictorial space with old master tropes like cut out windows and convex mirrors, all we need here is the interplay of lace, fur, pearls and flesh. Even if this woman is exposed as an object of desire, she’s not powerless or unintelligent. Like with Bea Arthur, every now and again Currin imbues his subjects with a sense of introspection that is more than skin deep. That’s cool and all, but let’s face it—it’s all about the boobs.