Currin culls his source material from old magazine ads and catalogue spreads. Happy Lovers is a reimagined version of a rum advertisement from a 1970s Playboy magazine. Here, the lovers are tenderly united, her head resting gently on his chest. In their monochromatic crewneck sweaters with stark white collars peeking out, the couple looks like a pair of actors staged in a stock image. Through this obvious display of trite pretense, it is Currin’s underlying aim to expose the artifice behind prosaic images of cultural conventionality. The expectation is that an image of a happy couple might arouse passion, nostalgia, or longing; however, this image seems to have the opposite effect — its artificiality is cold, distant, and frozen, and thus unrelatable.
As remarkably explained by Frederic Paul, Currin’s paintings “possess an aura of mystery that comes from the repeated appearance of idealized and naive images trivialized through overuse. Male and female figures are thus treated as mere models, sometimes even becoming caricatures, though never turning into kitsch, grotesque or comic elements. His paintings give the impression of being populated by virile, bearded model-males and curvaceous, politely decorated model-females, just past their prime” (Frederic Paul, “John Currin: A Model Painter,” in Exh. Cat., Limoges, Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain du Limousin, John Currin, 1995, p. 64). Exuding an affected ambiguity that elicits our reconsideration of ingrained cultural norms, Happy Lovers epitomizes the wry humor and irony with which Currin has crucially reinvigorated the genre of portraiture.
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