Painted in 1999.
There are few painters today that revere the figure more than John Currin. His true genius lies in his ability to re-convert contemporary viewers to the luscious spectacle and grand tradition of painting through various reconsiderations of the female gender. Nice 'n Easy from 1999 reveals Currin's hyper-realist style and recalls art historical precedents such as Lucas Cranach's still, sinuous nudes and Sandro Boticelli's excessive, heroic Venuses. Focusing almost exclusively on women, it is clear that the artist has a fascination with the form of the female body and, in much of his work, sex is the driving engine. The two figures in the present work engage in a continuous back and forth of pleasure and guilt. The intense beauty of the painting captivates the viewer but the understanding of the painting is far from "nice 'n easy."
Currin was born in the same year as Roy Lichtenstein's first show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. Lichenstein's career would change traditional perceptions of the American ideal of beauty, pulling sources from advertisements and comics and enlarging them in controlled, graphic renderings. The female, as subject, in the history of painting has consistently been refined and explored. Like Lichtenstein, Currin explored innovative ways of depicting women in the context of his own time, relying on accepted forms only to subvert them. His earliest paintings were based on portrait heads as in a high school yearbook, silent faces frozen in expression. Currin's 1992 one person show at Andrea Rosen Gallery consisted of small format paintings of mostly older women. These women were not the glamorized objects of desire that viewers were so accustomed to seeing as female archetypes. In the mid-1990s, Currin played with the more stereotypical view of women when he turned to the erotic pin-up style with his comically busty women measuring their breasts, coupled with suitors or posing in sultry positions. From this satirical view of gender concepts, Currin moved on to his greatest innovation, which emerges directly from his interest in the Renaissance masters, re-directing art history and commentary back to discussions of painting's relevance. In describing Currin's ``collision of naked, real-life women and old-master nudes'', Robert Rosenblum asserts that ``[Currin's] fusion of venerable past and vulgar present comes out as a perfect hybrid that lives in both worlds.'' (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, John Currin, 2003, p. p. 15)
Nice 'n Easy is the quintessential example of Currin's series of Renaissance inspired nudes posed against a black, shallow background. Coinciding with his marriage to his wife Rachel Feinstein, these works are suffused with the inspiration he drew from his marriage. The paintings are less about socio-political commentary and more about the beauty and form of the female body. Currin incorporated his wife's features – golden wavy hair and wide-set eyes - into many of his female subjects from this time onward. The group of black background nudes is particularly evocative of the Renaissance artists and their concept of an ``ideal'' nude, sharply depicted with shallow contouring, pearl-like skin and graceful poses. In Nice 'N Easy two slender women pose elegantly with elongated limbs and mannered gestures as they gently interact, one with the other. There is a beautiful translucency to the figures' skin as they glow in a Northern Renaissance light with wisps of hair echoing the sinuous line of form and gesture. Currin's fascination with anatomy, particularly women's breasts, and his distortions of the form are evidenced in the present work. Although no longer the unrealistic portrayals of pinup girls, the female body is here also lacking in realistic proportion. Currin did not work from models in the black background nudes such as Nice 'n Easy (and indeed rarely worked from models at all in his career). He noted, "The people I paint don't exist. The only thing that's real is the painting. It's not like a photograph where there's another reality that existed at a certain moment in time in the past. The image is only happening right now and this is the only version of it. To me, that's fascinating. It's an eternal moment." (Rochelle Steiner, Interview with John Currin in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and traveling), John Currin, 2003, p. 77)
The theme of women left to their own devices is common among Old Master artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Baldung Grien. It is unclear what is happening in this painting - is the woman on the right pregnant? Is this a visitation? – Currin's meaning is vague. The viewer is unsettled by the figures' placid and amused expressions, ambiguous gestures and bizarre interaction. The figure on the right crosses two fingers of her right hand and rests them on her chest. Crossed fingers are a superstition for good luck that originated from a pre-Christian gesture to ward off witches, perhaps an allusion to the other more evil female archetype in the Old Masters' work. In these works, Currin often portrays duos or trios setting up a curious foreplay, as Robert Rosenblum notes, "continuing their delicate sexual provocations and slipping uncannily back and forth between memories of highly paid American fashion models with pinup girl pasts to the supernatural beauty of Renaissance Venuses or the sinister sexuality of Renaissance Eves." (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and traveling), John Currin, 2003, p. 18) Nice 'n Easy is a seminal work from this particular series and one of the artist's most impressive works to date, characterized by a skillful mastery of painting, a deep appreciation for art history, and an intense desire for beauty.
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