Currin's quirky paintings split art world

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  Jan. 17, 2004 at 12:06 AM
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NEW YORK, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- The jury of public opinion is still out of the paintings of John Currin, a mid-career American artist who seems headed for commercial success.

There are critics and other art world luminaries who find Currin's art, though technically admirable, to be derivative, extremely vulgar, and downright quirky.

Then there are the powers that be at the renowned Whitney Museum of American Art who have seen fit to honor the Colorado-born artist with the first museum survey his work has received in the United States, a retrospective tracing his development over the past decade.

Simultaneous with the Whitney show, which will run through Feb. 22, Currin has announced he is leaving Chelsea neighborhood dealer Andrea Rosen, who nurtured him for 14 years and gave him his first gallery show in 1992, to go with Larry Gagosian, a prestigious Madison Avenue dealer who represents many top contemporary art stars and sees that they get top dollar for their work.

Rosen had quietly built Currin's reputation and he has been her biggest earner, but the lure of the big time represented by Gagosian, who handles such artists as Cy Twombly and Richard Serra and has galleries in Los Angeles and London, was too powerful to resist. Currin, still considered a "young artist" at 41 by art world standards (and looking all of 25), is poised to play out a career already filled with promise on a grander stage.

A slow painter, producing only a few paintings a year, there aren't many Currins around to be purchased and one already has fetched as much as $400,000 at auction and another once owned by English collector Charles Saatchi reportedly was resold privately for $600,000. The word on the street is that Gagosian will increase the prices of Currin's paintings by 50 percent.

The Whitney show leaves many in doubt that any of his works could be worth $1 million, as they soon will be priced.

Currin is a figure painter in the style of the Old Masters (no abstract or expressionist dabbling for him) with overtones of Norman Rockwell, popular cartoons, and pin-up art verging on the pornographic. He has brought kitsch to painting as Jeff Koons has to sculpture. A painting of a couple of lovers is shamelessly copied from a rum advertisement in Playboy magazine.

One critic described these paintings as "cheap thrills peddled as high art" and, another, while describing them as "riveting," noted that Currin has the peculiar talent of "putting you off while turning you on at he same time." An informal UPI survey of viewers at the Whitney earlier this week showed that they were evenly split as to whether they like Currin's art or even take him seriously as a contender for a prominent position among American artists of the 21st century.

What the show proves is that Currin has been painting variations of a theme that malevolently satirizes middle-class values since he first arrived on the art scene in 1989.

He is a more painterly artist now than he was then, but he still seems to be an artist in search of subject matter on a higher plane who finds he can't shake off the desire to titillate his audience with eccentric imagery that exposes the artificiality of contemporary life, particularly suburban life. This is summed up in "Stamford After-Brunch," depicting affluent young housewives puffing cigars and getting drunk on martinis.

Who really wants to look at a painting of two porn queens measuring each others' enhanced bosoms in a painting titled "Bra Shop" or a naked portrait of actress Bea Arthur? Who really needs paintings of aging, embalmed-looking women posing seductively like models, gay couples fraternizing at a bar, or a spoof of a 17th century Dutch still life that has a lobster and other victuals supported on an awkwardly poised human head?

Currin is truly mesmerized by the female nude and has painted them in a variety of positions including stretched out on what appears to be an operating table feet first. He has tried painting male nudes only once, a 2002 oil titled "The Fisherman," showing two men seen from the back in a fishing boat, one coiling a fantastically realistic rope, the other casting a net.

This impressively composed canvas not only demonstrates Currin's virtuosity as a painter but underscores his ability to quote from the classic style of such early Renaissance artists as Sandro Botticelli and Lucas Cranach. It is the most beautiful painting in the show, but whether or not it marks a fresh trajectory for this obviously talented artist remains to be seen.

The best advice is to stay tuned. Currin will be around to love or hate for years to come.

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