by Magdalene Perez
For much of his career John Currin has defined his place in the art world by going against the grain. During the early 1990s, his cheeky and sometimes grotesque portrayals of busty young women, mustachioed men and androgynous divorcs set him apart at a time when critics favored conceptual and heavily political works.
Currin, who has enjoyed as much praise as criticism for his work, took to the podium
last week at the New School in New York to reflect on the influences and experiences that have shaped his work along the way.
Dressed in a gray suit and using a slideshow to illustrate, Currin quickly won over the audience with comical anecdotes about his work. Having tried to follow in the footsteps of some of the greatest
20th-century masters during his art school years"I wanted to be a heroic de Kooning, Pollock type artist," he said of his early workCurrin finally had a "vision" while riding the train to his studio in
New Jersey, inspiring him to create one of his first figurative paintings, a nude portrait of the Golden Girls' Bea Arthur. "I just indefinitely put off putting the clothes on her," he half-jokingly said.
Currin was also candid about the criticism that has been aimed at his most controversial work. "When people say these are sexist pictures, I say, 'yeah they are.' And very definitely they are," he affirmed. "But all I can say is I identified very strongly with them."
"At that time I didn't feel like a man and I didn't feel like a woman," he added later.
Interestingly, Currin often looked to glossy magazines like Cosmopolitan along with vintage rags like Playboy to serve as inspiration for his paintings.
"I think much of the pathos and the creepy sexism comes from looking at too many of these magazines," he said.
Since then Currin's work has evolved into many different forms, sometimes taking a turn for the playful, strange or even modest. Having made it through more than a decade of painting, he had plenty of sound advice for the young artist struggling to live up to the masters.
"Dare to be as petty as the painting requires you to," he counseled. "Sometimes it's better when you stop thinking about art and start thinking about outfits."
Or, alternatively, just forget to paint the outfit altogether.
Lecture organized by the Public Art Fund. Image courtesy Gagosian Gallery, photograph by Robert McKeever.