John Currin's Painted Doozies at the Andrea Rosen Gallery

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It is a perversely exciting thing, the encounter in New York between the Norman Rockwell traveling exhibition at the Guggenheim and John Currin's new show of paintings in Chelsea. Facing each other across town, they take on the stock roles of victim and victimizer meeting in a public lavatory. Innocent Rockwell returns just as the nation most desires the flag-shrouded myth of "normalcy." Currin, ever the spoiler, twists the arm of normalcy and roughly sticks a finger up its ass.

Immorality is a word rarely used in the art world today, yet it fits the pictures of John Currin to a T. The morality he contravenes is not just Rockwell's sanitized postwar vision of Caucasian uniformity (that would be too easy) but also the rigid mores of yesterday's radicals turned today's finger-wagging fogies: the inflexible feminists, the poststructuralist professors, the irrelevant semioticians, the Marxist installation artists, the identity-art freaks. Ten years after his inclusion in a group show in New York raised a storm of p.c. protest, John Currin is as devoted to frustrating accepted standards of right thinking and good taste (or what passes for it in the art world) as ever.

Currin's immorality has taken the form of a peculiarly weird brand of figuration during a decade of American art that he helped shape. At a time when the art world's virtuous pseudo-theoreticians reduced painting to a retrograde exercise (one priest of programmatic postmodernity called the practice "a shorthand code for an entire edifice of institutional domination exerted through the collector's marketplace and the modern museum"), Currin advanced the idea of painting as "a kind of unnatural thing." He worked against the puritan grain of American contemporary art and embraced painterly pleasure in its most unthinkable, least celebrated variants: namely, in pathetically sexist depictions of women, ridiculous portraits of haplessly demode men and what the artist has called his artistically "lustful or low urges."

Amped up by a Liberace-like love of kitsch, his exceptional painting skill, a disdain for artistic social critique and a genuine love of the painted figure, Currin has fashioned some of the most beautiful and vulgar pictures of our time. The comparisons to Balthus, though fatuous, are always tempting (I heard the artist himself invoke them on one occasion). Unlike Balthus, a late addition to surrealism and something of a parasite on the body of late modernism, Currin and his work represent much more than erotic mystery or repressed perversion. Currin's pictures form a solid cornerstone for the reestablishment of brush and oil work in today's art world. Along with the work of a few contemporaries, most notably Lisa Yuskavage, they engage the very fundamentals of painting as a sneakily communicative practice in our new age.

Painting at the intersection between the Old Masters and popular visual fare, Currin has revamped the age-old female figure in the guise of present day cliches. Big-bosomed bimbos from truckstop calendars populate his early work, as well as neurotic portraits of pinched society ladies. Later paintings invoke?besides visual vernacular like William Hamilton's haughty New Yorker drawings and Playboy's Varga girls?variously, the diaphanous beauties of Botticelli; the slender-waisted nudes of Lucas Cranach; the elegantly distorted girls of Ingres; the emotional reticence of Manet's plain Janes.

"Ultimately," Currin explained before his small-scale but important 1997 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, "I think what I do is to find a cliche and try to believe in it." Arguably, the biggest cliche this artist has entertained up to now is the traditional practice of painting women. A vehicle he has ridden to a region beyond the wrong-headed, right-thinking utopias of postminimal art, Currin has used his ludicrously objectified pinups and Mrs. Robinsons to afford him what every real painter's heart desires: to paint colors and shapes well.

On the verge of his first major museum retrospective, in the fall of 2002, Currin has recently chosen to present less a full-on exhibition of paintings at Chelsea's Andrea Rosen Gallery than a collection of recent major and minor works. The 10 works on paper?all of women and done variously in charcoal, chalk, pastel, gouache and conte crayon on antique-looking colored paper?are hung together in informal, nonthematic clusters and set the mood of a vaguely decadent Arthur Schnitzler drawing room for a half-dozen painted doozies that easily figure among the painter's best.

One such painting, The Lobster, presents a 21st-century version of an 18th-century still-life set nonchalantly upon a lady's horizontally upended head and neck. Behind the lady's ear are tucked one baguette, two fish, a bunch of grapes, five lemons, a jar of water, a violin and the lobster that gives the painting its name. Painted with all the delicacy of a Chardin and illuminated by a clear, no-nonsense light the artist seems to have borrowed from Courbet, Currin's picture revisits the contemplative note of these ancestors of "pure painting" while sounding a modern contemptuous note for his female quasi-subject. (Is she really dumb as a table?)

At least three other paintings recycle the painting styles and compositions of past masters (with Currin, it's hard to keep up). The first, Odalisque, presents a nude portrait of Currin's wife, the artist Rachel Feinstein, draped over a table in the theatricalized attitude of Mantegna's dead Christ. Another painting, a tondo titled Blond Angel, features the same subject (one suspects the artist partly intends to present his wife as Everywoman, though the idealization is evident) with flowing locks that echo Caravaggio's round portrait of Medusa. In both cases, Currin deflates the fearfulness and drama of his historical sources, opting to record a sort of blithe calmness instead, perhaps in representation of his own painterly joy: Blond Angel, for example, stares out smilingly where Caravaggio paints a severed head, while Odalisque peeks out flirtatiously behind a pair of unrealistic, cartoony feet.

The third painting to reach back into art history for visual sustenance is by far the exhibition's best and most enigmatic. A picture of a pair of Westchesterites in horticulturist togs, The Gardeners is a piece of pure magic sparked from the meeting of an increasingly accessible past and our oversaturated present (think Internet and cheap air travel). Directly referencing Gustave Courbet's unadorned The Stone Breakers, Currin's painting portrays his figures' activity in front of a pillared mansion and a parked Rolls instead of a barren, rocky field. Rather than break rocks, the faceless couple deliver a planter into a freshly dug hole. Where Courbet offered an epoch-making glimpse at what Baudelaire called "the heroism of modern life," Currin posits a bourgeois narrative that is as pointless as a cul de sac.

One cannot help but think, however immoral the thought, that Currin's series of elaborate and shifting quotations are chiefly a game, an intellectual ruse that permits him to lavish an amazing amount of painterly attention on, say, creamy female flesh or a pair of striped gardening gloves. Yet his paintings strike a chord precisely because we know that, in today's world, there are no easy answers to the spiny problem of painterly representation. In interviews Currin has admitted to "looking at old art...because those are the best pictures," and comparing the act of painting the figure today with "writing show tunes." Somewhere in the balance between those two statements lies the nub of Currin's frustrated morality?a firm belief in a practice and tradition that cannot be invoked without at least acknowledging some degree of futility in the venture.

"John Currin," through Dec. 15 at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 W. 24th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 627-6000.

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