Rendered in a palette of soft, blush pinks and creamy yellows and set against a backdrop of billowy pinks and blues, Currin has captured the sensuous Helena in Rubens-esque flesh, her light apricot skin tone contoured with lilac shadows and pale peach brushstrokes. Helena tosses her had up in laughter, her blonde locks framing her youthful face in a lush fringe. While the title of Helena announces the portrait’s referent, the present work reveals Currin’s capacity to create portraits that narrowly evade direct visual reference while harboring a persistent and uncanny resemblance to the stylistic modes of numerous Old Master painters.
Speaking to the conception of Gallery Met and the inventive exhibition Heroines, Kazanjian explains that in conceptualizing the exhibition: “We tried to think about how visual artists could be involved with the Met in non-traditional ways, […] ‘Heroines,’ as a theme, seemed like a natural place to start. We tapped some of the most original talents working today – people who would bring idiosyncratic and challenging perspectives to the exhibition.” (Dodie Kazanjian quoted in “The Metropolitan Opera to Open ‘Gallery Met,’ Art Daily, September 2006) For the exhibition, the participating artists – including Cecily Brown, Richard Prince, and George Condo – were asked to create works inspired by heroines of opera productions. Currin’s invocation of Die Ägyptische Helena is especially significant as the opera itself evokes art historical precedent, referencing the play Helen by the classical Greek tragedian Euripides, which was first produced in 412 B.C. for the Dionysia festival in Athens.
Dense with art historical and cultural references, Helena richly imparts Currin’s very best formal evocation of the influences that have informed and themes that have defined his monumentally significant oeuvre. The subtle idiosyncrasies that infiltrate Helena pit the surreal against the corporeal, epitomizing Currin’s career-long enthrallment with the female portrait.
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