Francesco Bonami,"Seven Women at Andrea Rosen," Flash Art, May - June 1991, p. 164, illustrated (photograph of the present work as installed in the exhibition)
Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), John Currin, May 2003 - February 2004, p. 28, illustrated in color
Kara Vander Weg and Rose Dergan, eds., John Currin, New York, 2006, p. 67, illustrated in color
John Currin's Shakespeare Actress, 1991 is a beautifully original and 21st Century approach to the tradition of portrait painting. At a moment when painting was not the medium of choice for most artists, Currin made a commitment to it and consistently worked within a specific format and a dedicated subject matter of portraiture. 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. With masterful brushwork and paint handling Currin succeeds at connecting the traditional with the cultural output of the moment. The present work focuses exclusively on the figure of a woman, frontally oriented and placed on a muted ground. This series of paintings of middle aged women followed on the heels of the yearbook style portraits by the artist and express Currin's evident interest in the formulaic pose and cropping of these rather deadpan expressionless portraits. In many of these works there is awkwardness in the figures' gaze that is both intriguing and unsettling to the viewer. Shakespeare Actress has a particular intensity – the subject has a graceful and familiar hand on hip stance yet is undermined somehow by the artist's choice of a limited palette.
Currin's paintings eliminate external reality and focus the viewer's attention squarely on the subject, which more often than not is a female figure. In the present work, and other paintings from the early 1990s, Currin focused on the notion of centering – bringing added attention to the figure. Currin's fascination with women was often criticized as being misogynistic, he asserts, "painting has always been essentially about women, about looking at things in the same way that a straight man looks at a woman....when I hold a brush, it's a weird object...as if part of the female sex has been taken and put on the end of this thing that is my male sex to connect with a yielding surface." ("Cherchez la femme Peintre! – A Parkett Inquiry," Parkett, no. 37, 1993, p. 147). The present work was painted in the same year as the somewhat startling and provocative painting Bea Arthur Naked, the "portrait" of the "Golden Girls" star and a reference to middle aged woman having sexuality. Currin's eschewed, exaggerated and at times bordering on grotesque portraits create a discomfort for both the viewer's and the art world establishment's value system and accepted critique of the traditional and authoritative medium of painting – precisely the artist's intention.
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