Painted with Currin’s trademark bravura technique, two young women are portrayed with a painterly virtuosity and in a manner not dissimilar to the frivolity and titillation synonymous with the genre of the female bather – a painterly theme that proliferated alongside the onset of Modernism within fin de siècle France. As epitomised by the abundantly exuberant flesh of Renoir’s Great Bathers (1918-19) housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the art historical lineage of coquettish female homoeroticism in European painting charts a long evolution dating back to Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Three Graces (1535), through to Titian’s Diana and Actaeon (1556-59), Courbet’s erotically charged Le Sommeil (1866) and Ingres’ orientalising prototypical bather-scene, The Turkish Bath (1862), to name only a few landmark works. Unaware of the onlooker, detached from reality and propelled into an often Arcadian pastoral setting, these constructs of ideal femininity bespeak an entire tradition of objectification by the male gaze, that which art historian Tamar Garb has famously identified as a machine of “masculine mastery and feminine display” (Tamar Garb, Bodies of Modernity, London 1998). The slow-burning impact of Manet’s Olympia inevitably put paid to these visually mute gender politics - the empowering agency of an unclothed yet distinctly contemporaneous female subject directly returning the spectator’s stare – throwing into relief the symbolic currency of the female form in terms of gender-constructs and the problematic of the desiring gaze. Updating the currency of this over-wrought dialogue, John Currin places himself within its monolithic legacy: reprising the erotic voluptuousness of Renoir’s Great Bathers – an artwork equally as troubling as it is magnificent – Currin ramps up the theme for a twenty-first century context. Herein, Currin’s work irreverently skirts the boundary between complicity and critique: “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” (John Currin quoted in: ‘Cherchez la femme PEINTRE! – A Parkett Inquiry’, Parkett, no. 37, 1993, pp. 146-47). Enacting an ambiguous ventriloquism of exactly the kind of statements uttered by the likes of Renoir or Picasso, Currin speaks as though seemingly unabashed in his unfettered heterosexual motivations.
Calling upon contemporary themes and a pseudo-ironic absorption of typically American Kitsch-culture, the painter conceives of his practice as an extension of a lost, pre-war Grand European tradition - particularly in relation to the works of a more explicit nature. As he has outlined: “Porn seemed to allow me to make beautiful paintings, to make a more emphatic European kind of painting. I grew to like that they fell into this tradition of supposedly progressive, bohemian, forward-thinking, avant-garde, shock-the-bourgeoisie stuff. That just seemed intrinsic. But in my mind they had a very reactionary message” (John Currin in conversation with Angus Cook in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Gagosian Gallery, John Currin¸ 2010, p. 12). Though executed with the refined finesse of the Northern European Tradition, Currin’s painting is affined with a distinctly low-budget soft-core milieu: in Rita, Sue and Bob the female nude in oil on canvas is transformed into a three-way, soft-focus, 1970s porno. Reflecting the annulment of sexually explicit taboos imparted by our photographic consumer age, frilly underwear, lacy bedspreads, and blushing ivory skin-tones dress up a polymorphous sexual encounter. The trademark distended limbs and incongruous proportions frame the female protagonist’s outward gaze; however, far from the empowered stare of Manet’s Olympia, Currin’s porcelain skinned semi-clad nude possesses an unconvincing detached look matched by the suggestion of a fixed rictus grin. All limbs and fragmented body parts, Currin’s porno is anything but erotic. In this sense Rita, Sue and Bob affirm the impoverishment of painting to elucidate the kind of graphic immediacy of images proliferated by the advent of photographic reproduction and made inescapable with the ubiquity of the internet: “…photography – especially pornography – is a much more vivid and vicarious experience than any painting could ever be. I’d always gotten a depressing feeling when looking at a painting of a nude woman, and thought, ‘Well, am I supposed to get excited by this? Because I’m not.’ So it’s kind of about paintings of nudes failing to be as good as photographs” (John Currin in conversation with Rochelle Steiner in: Exhibition Catalogue, Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), John Currin, 2003, p. 80).
In the decadent, hyper-mediated social, financial, and technological environment of the 1990s and 2000s, the tension between art history and mass-culture evident in Currin’s work, articulated through his carefully chosen vocabulary of kitsch, vulgarity, art historical dislocation, and desire, have signalled a rejection of bourgeois good taste so deliberate that it appeared to be a form of resistance. Currin’s parody of excess held a mirror up to the decadence of the period in which he came of age as a painter. Nonetheless, the technical master of Currin’s work affords an indefatigably virtuoso exhibition of painterly skill. Credited with reviving the waning art of figurative painting with his honest and persistent questioning of the ever evolving psychology of contemporary culture, Currin is a longstanding champion of representational painting; the present work is emphatic testimony to both his phenomenal practical aptitude and perceptive conceptual acumen.
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