20th Century critical theory has taken a stance that representational figure painting is no longer relevant to post-modernist artistic discourse. It is an arguable point, considering that one can find representational painters working and thriving in this early 21st Century, with a select few engaging in contemporary dialogue. This very fact leads to a notion that representational painters have been operating “under the radar” since perhaps the end of Modernism. Two such artists are John Currin (b. 1962) and Vincent Desiderio (b. 1955).
The genesis of Currin's and Desiderio's professional practices may have evolved in a compellingly similar fashion (such as their early penchants to create Willem De Kooning pastiche paintings), but in their respective moments of arrival at representational figuration, the intentionality behind their works took distinctly different paths.
With a deep understanding of historical context, Desiderio concluded that, in order to reify painting – to resuscitate it back from decontextualization via the vehicle of Modernism - he had to discard the reliance upon emblemization and pave a way back to sequentiality. His use of the triptych as a mode for the sequential became a staple of his work. Using dreamlike, mysterious imagery, Desiderio plays down dramatic themes in what he terms a “cubistic thematic situation.” (Art Talks,12:05). Rather than expand the dramatic narrative for its own sake, he does so by focusing upon the development of the technical narrative, which Desiderio believes to be “the embodiment of the thought of the painter.” (Art Talks,13:10).
Currin, in his purposefully leading way, declares in Parkett: “I paint women and that's what my work's about.” (147). These declarations are overwritten by his true “vice,” and that is his love of the masterpieces of European painting. There is no doubt how much it irks Currin when he comments to William Stover, “People would not laugh at the idea of a musical or cinematic masterpiece, but for some reason it is considered retarded and anachronistic and reactionary to wish for a masterpiece in painting.” (24-25). Clearly, he finds joy in employing classical techniques when he paints, but while doing so, he strives to give contemporary qualities to his female subjects. These attributes are derived from his observation of the insidious nature of advertising and stock photography and how women are portrayed by these mainstream, inescapable images. Currin seeks to recontextualize this with Rochelle Steiner: “When it's such an ugly image, I find it's exhilarating to make it a luscious painting.” (81).
In order to make a more specific comparison, two works have been chosen for closer analysis: for John Currin, Nude on a Table (40” x 32” oil on canvas, 2001); for Vincent Desiderio, Academy (48” x 88” oil on canvas, 2001).
In reading the triptych of Academy, we find in the left panel a fallen older man. His robed body rests upon a field of open art books, his eyes half-lidded and staring. The center panel depicts a female nude – young, healthy and clearly embodying the attributes of the classic artist's model. She is presented in a typical anthropometrical pose, symmetrically balanced with hands open. Light suffuses her head and torso as it comes straight down from the ceiling as would the natural light from the skylight of an atelier. Panel three portrays the x-ray of an infant – a newborn. It is a straight rendering, unadorned save for an “R” at the lower left, indicating that the head is in right-side profile.
In stepping back and taking in the complete piece, we find little obvious connection between the images. The scale of the man, the woman and the infant are unrelated. The sense of space is negligible: the man is seen from above, cropped at the thigh, the books covering the floor; the woman floats in an amorphous umber expanse; the x-ray is just an x-ray. However, one can see the angles of the figures in the first and third panels create a classical (academic) triangular composition against the symmetrically vertical central figure; it is the pillar that holds up the others. There is no perspective in any panel – a curious thing, considering Desiderio's fascination with the topic – so this lack must have meaning. The artist, therefore, is establishing a confrontational stance. With no perspective, one engages with these images directly.
The most obvious visual reference to academic art is clear with the model in the center panel, the next being the presence of numerous art books in the first. Looking closely at the images displayed in the expanse of art books, we find right next to the fallen man's ear, Manet's The Fifer. For Desiderio, this icon is more akin to a “cipher”; it acts as his personal touchstone that links art's continuity to the past, as he tells Mia Fineman: “You see that face in Coptic portraits... in Caravaggio and Ribera... again in Picasso's self-portraits... and the self-portrait of Gorky with his mother.” (31). It is the persistence of painting historically emblemized at the onset of Modernism. An interesting detail here is the older man's torso – it seems to be wrapped in bandages, as if he has suffered a beating or has been subjected to an invasive operation. In either case, he is down without any energy left to rise. But why is the Fifer piping into the man's ear? Undoubtedly, it is the duty of a young soldier to rally the fallen so they may soldier on. This is the ongoing battle for painting; it has fallen, but it will get up. Its future, even if it becomes a strange, transparent version of its old self, will still look to its classical past, as the x-rayed infant does. The model will be there as the foundation, waiting for the benediction - which is for the painter to paint her. Fully realized in paint, rendered with skill and clarity, but with no perspective, the artist states flatly: painting will continue, no matter what. It is a declaration of faith in painting's continued relevance, despite the vagaries of history.
Although Nude on a Table is one of Currin's few supine figures, this female nude is still subject to his whimsical anatomical inventiveness. Indeed, it is a nude woman on a table, dramatically foreshortened from the feet in the foreground, to the head peering out at the viewer just over the horizon of her left shoulder. Her body describes a mild “C” curve across a rather mushy-looking, altar-like table covered with a white cloth. A stack of lemons and a candleabra sit just behind her to the left. Similar to Desiderio, the paint is handled skilfully, classically and neutrally. The anatomy, however, is tweaked well out of convention. Extremely angled passages of shoulders, the strange splaying of broad forms, and the flattening of perspective all give a disquieting feel to this oddly attractive naked woman. She is, of course, smiling at us – but with quite some difficulty, as her neck and head are at a less than optimal angle to look forward.
A straightforward eroticism is evident in an immediate way, as the warmly rendered thatch of pubic hair sits practically in the very center of the picture. Undoubtedly, Currin evokes Courbet's Origin of the World, while simultaneously indulging in his Renaissance predilections with the pose's similarity to the dead Christ figure by Andrea Mantegna. And yet, the forced smile from the über-blonde model, the unabashed display of nakedness and the dramatic effort to meet the gaze of the viewer brings one back to motifs seen primarily contemporary pornography.
Despite what may seem like his own objectification of women, the artist actually does the opposite and makes one cognizant of the failure of contemporary progressive awareness to get past this issue, inasmuch as it has endeavored to do so. Currin develops a narrative uniting objectifying tendencies of the past with those of the present, striving to get the viewer to recognize the psychological burden of women and tells Steiner: “Maybe, partly, this imagery makes physical the guilt you feel for objectifying her.” (78). The hills and valleys of the forms on the figure evoke past Realist and Neoclassical notions of woman-as-landscape; as something to be explored, or exploited. The artist flattens these very forms as a camera lens would – again, suggesting pornography - and magnifies the aforementioned perceptions. The three candles, dripping and exhausted, the breast-like lemons, the rumpled sheets all mix modern and old master erotic symbols. The flattening of such a foreshortened form jibes with Currin's overall technical narrativity also, as he states to O'Brien, “Instead of layered physical space, I kind of layered culture.” (3). It is within the conflation of the old and the new, the recall of histories and the ugliness of the now, that Currin makes his assertions about painting.
List of Works Cited:
Desiderio, Vincent. “Art Talks.” MFA Program at The Art Institute of Boston. Boston University Kenmore Classroom Building, Boston. 11 January 2010. Lecture/DVD.
O'Brien, Glenn. “John Currin.” Interview. Interview, Incorporated. 8 June 2009. Web. 28 March 2010.
Steiner, Rochelle. “Interview with John Currin.” John Currin. Ed. Deborah Aaronson. New York: Abrams, 2003. 11-22. Print
Parkett-Verlag, “Cherchez La Femme - Peintre!” Parkett no. 37, September 1993: 146-147. Print
Stover, William. John Currin Selects. Boston: MFA Publications, 2003. Print.
Fineman, Mia. “The Young Master of Media, PA.” Vincent Desiderio Paintings 1975-2005. Ed. Todd Bradway. New York: DAP, 2005. 25-32