Contemporary Art

John Currin and Rachel Feinstein on Their Work, Marriage and Living an Artist's Dream at Chatsworth House

By Beki Bateson
Ahead of their appearance at Chatsworth Arts Festival on the weekend of 20-22 September, husband and wife artists, John Currin and Rachel Feinstein, caught up with Festival Director Beki Bateson from their kitchen in Maine, US.

How do your creative processes work together?

RF: We try to stagger shows so they don’t interfere with the children and family life, so one person is focused on the home and the other on work or an exhibition.

JC: Before we had children, we were both very disorganised. Rachel used to be Sleeping Beauty – getting up late, doing a bit of work, then she would sleep again and daydream. It feels like an odd thing now: two artists and no outside forces.

RF: John would be the guy who would wake up really early and now it’s the complete opposite. I like to know what is going on. I feel stressed when something is due, whereas John works best when he has no structure in a given day, he doesn’t like any deadlines.

Rachel Feinstein working on her ceramic sculpture Britannia at the Nymphenburg Porcelain Factory in Munich © Samuel Keyte - Courtesy of Gucci

Do you work in the same space or at the same time, or do you prefer to develop ideas separately?

RF: We had studios right next to each other in 2000. He felt that I would be really distracting if he was so close to me, and then of course, as soon as I moved in, he was knocking on my door constantly wanting me to come and see his work!

Later, John took over a loft space that used to be our home, a former dry cleaner’s shop, with the biggest mouse problem you have ever seen. We were there for a long time from 1995 to 2009. When our second child was born, I rented a little apartment on the 8th floor, above where John worked. It was comical as by this point I was making large sculpture, and it had a small elevator to get everything in and out. One time we had to cut a hole through to the hallway to get one of my pieces out of the building. We put everything back but hopefully the landlord didn’t notice!

I now have a studio on the border of Tribeca and John has one in Gramercy, near where we live. We sadly don’t see each other as much as we used to, so now we show each other stuff on the phone and, if I’m desperate and I really need his help, I get him to come down to Tribeca.

John Currin and Rachel Feinstein with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth House © Samuel Keyte - Courtesy of Gucci

How much do you ask each other for advice and opinions?

RF: When our studios were next door to each other, John would shout 'Come in right now! Put that down and come and look at this!'. His need for my opinion was often urgent. Then I started posing for him all the time so we would talk during that process. I ask John for something that I’m on the fence about, and if he’s certain about it and I think he’s wrong, it becomes a big argument!

JC: I’m very opinionated about sculpture but I learned I have no talent for it. I have no idea which way to go.

RF: He has a problem with spatial awareness, he gets lost all the time.

JC: I can see she is way better at sculpture than me. She’s like a Russian tennis star – talented but unfocused, and I think I’m a decent coach... although rather grizzled!

RF: I’m a big believer in the whole idea that you need the opposite of who you are and John is my other half, for sure. John needs me and I need him.

JC: Like in Jerry McGuire – you complete me! We saw that film in London and I found it so confusing being in England and watching such American sensibilities, I remember being struck with how strange it was.

RF: My motto is that “more is best.” But sometimes adding “more” can take away from the form and gild the lily. I often tell John to loosen up in his art – 'You’re getting too tight. Feel it and go with the energy and flow’. He’s the person who is the critical eye for me and will say 'Take all that shit off; you’ve lost the form’.

Rachael Feinstein at work at the Swiss Cottage at Chatsworth © Samuel Keyte - Courtesy of Gucci

You’ve been dubbed 'The Art World’s Ruling Couple' and your influence has been compared to Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner. What do you make of that label?

JC: I don’t like the term 'power couple'. What does it mean? I do know that paintings by me of Rachel are more desirable than my other paintings. We were a power couple one week after we met but had no power or money!

RF: John is very female in his work and how his studio looks, and my studio is like a man cave. It’s messy, smelly, full of power tools.

JC: She has bunch of guys working there.

RF: Although I just got a female studio manager for the first time. At home, I am more maternal and love cooking, and John is more about helping with the homework and taking out the trash.

Does the dynamic between you change when Rachel is modelling for John?

RF: He becomes very bossy and I get super irritated about it, but I realise I’m just the subject in this situation.

JC: Rachel is a wonderful model... for photography! She doesn’t like to stay still, which is what I need. Phones have helped keep her interested in posing, although Rachel’s popular and every single person wants her attention the whole time.

John Currin, Flugel Horn, 2018, oil on canvas, 32 x 24 inches, 81.3 x 61 cm. © John Currin. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy: Gagosian. Robert McKeever

You both have such bold aesthetic styles - how does that work when it comes to designing your own spaces and homes? What kind of influences do you draw on?

RF: We built this town house over the last seven years, which is a long time! For me, a house is a giant work of art and having Studio Peregalli, our architects from Milan, was amazing. Honestly, I see making art – especially being a sculptor – as something where I can’t be a control freak. I have to have people working on my art. For John it’s different, it’s only him painting. He cares about everything. Lighting is very important to him, and finishes and craftsmanship. You can see that in his work.

JC: I love Italian designers – modern and 1960s designs. I grew up with Scandinavian furniture and wanted to do all our houses with that style – Marimekko, and so on – but Rachel and our friend Ricky Clifton, an interior decorator, both told me it wasn’t sexy enough. It was too much childhood and not enough sex.

RF: You see we have a duality; we are the two opposites who make a whole.

Rachel Feinstein at Chatsworth House © Samuel Keyte - Courtesy of Gucci

Rachel, can you describe your experience of being artist in residence at Chatsworth?

RF: Honestly, it has been one of the most surreal experiences of my life. When I was at Chatsworth it was a dream come true, in that fairy tale sense of the word.

JC: You wake up with Van Dyck!

RC: How incredibly wonderful the Duke and Duchess are. They’re the kindest, most wonderful hosts. It felt like a past-life experience. There’s a Carl Jung story where he says when he was a 10-year-old child and saw a carriage in a museum – that he had lived that life. It’s a strange feeling that somehow I really did belong at Chatsworth. You feel so at one with the whole experience. It felt so natural but so surreal at the same time – like when you’re in a dream. Crazy shit was happening, but it was real life.

The opportunity came at an amazing time. I’d just finished working on these big sculptures for Gagosian in LA. I’d wanted to make a version of them in ceramic at life-size scale, and I was in the middle of talking to Nymphenburg. Then I went to the V&A in London and saw this sculpture from Derby that was made 20 miles from Chatsworth in the 18th century.

Making a ceramic sculpture at that size is not easy. It was amazing that Nymphenburg took such an incredible project on, with so much risk, and Gucci being so behind everything was also amazing. I’ve turned down public projects because just one person saying no makes it difficult. On this, everyone said yes. Naturally everything was as it was supposed to be, you let it go and go with the flow and it will all fall into place – it really was truly a wonderful experience.

John Currin, Hot Pants, 2010, oil on canvas, 78 x 60 inches, 198.1 x 152.4 cm. © John Currin. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy: Gagosian. Robert McKeever

John, your talk at Chatsworth is called “My Life as a Man” – what ideas are you going to be touching on?

JC: There is a new wonderful book of my work, Men, by curator and writer, Alison Gingeras, and Naomi Fry who is a staff writer at the New Yorker. They have gathered all of my paintings of men. It has been published to accompany my exhibition called “My Life as a Man” at the Dallas Contemporary and we love it.

It is an interesting and terrifying time to do anything as a man. It’s funny, it seems a little bit comedic. Like if Black Sabbath tried to do New Wave, we’ve got to make ourselves relevant. Basically I have been painting men for a long time, and they’re kind of not too serious and remind me that I’m not a grand European painter revealing the heroic bearded figure of Mars!

Rachel and John will be speaking at Chatsworth Arts Festival on Saturday 21 September 2019 alongside Tom Dixon, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Michael Landy, Margo Selby, Antony Micallef, Josie Rouke, James Graham, Becky Namgauds and Aardman Animations.

Chatsworth Arts Festival takes place at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, Friday 20 - Sunday 22 September

Full line-up includes Jarvis Cocker, Sara Flynn, Lord Burlington, Sarah Raven, Mark Wallinger and Mary-Ann Dunkley

Sotheby's is a proud sponsor of the festival.

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