Redolent of its exceptional sophistication, Miss Fenwick does not immediately provoke the viewer as do Currin’s more explicit paintings–she is buxom but not nude; she is neither exploitatively adolescent nor geriatric; and she poses alone against an empty background rather than engaged in a sexually explicit tableau. Miss Fenwick stands anatomically askew, her warped physique seemingly vacant of joints and muscle so that the fluidly shifting proportions of her body accentuate the inflated bosom that rests atop her cinched torso and exaggeratedly widening belly. Her head sits atop a sinewy neck, as her lean arms bow gauntly to rest her elongated fingers on her broad hips. Although clothed, the languid and sinuous physique of Miss Fenwick is emphasized against the shallow, opaque backdrop, exuding a potent sexual magnetism—the abundance of her cleavage and fertile hips speak of the feminine reproductive capacity, while her downturned face and batting eyelashes evoke a flirtatious vulnerability. Currin’s signature sexual undertones suffuse the present work, yet the complex subtlety of Miss Fenwick is indicative of the artist’s development beyond shock and toward nuanced contemplation.
In marked contrast to the smooth precision with which Currin shapes her pale, peachy body, the face of Miss Fenwick is thickly built up of various colored pigments with the heavy notches of a palette knife. Although the impastoed flesh of her heart-shaped face is dramatically rugged, Currin builds out a superb bone structure that retains its sharp angularity beneath her craggy skin. As if ready to melt off the canvas, Miss Fenwick’s face signals Currin’s preoccupation with the grotesque, and its discomfiting juxtaposition with the prototypical fantasies of female portraiture. “Currin’s technique involves a continuous swerve between attraction and repulsion, pleasure and guilt, joy and shame. The surface in his work is radically heterogeneous: some areas, even some strokes, move closer toward ideality; other areas, often adjacent, move away. There is no point of rest or closure to this dialectic, nothing finally redeemed or finally condemned. Rather, the goal is to show how, in figurative painting, morphology really works, and how it recruits and plays with our own psychic investments as we view. The codes of ideality and the grotesque are jammed together; they become interchangeable and undecideable.” (Norman Bryson, “Maudit: John Currin and Morphology,” in Kara Vander Weg and Rose Dergan, eds., John Currin, New York, 2006, p. 30) Moreover, Currin mobilizes and probes our voyeuristic impulses: by allowing us unfettered access to the ripe appeal of Miss Fenwick’s body while startling us with her disturbingly confrontational face. Currin interrogates the motives and desires impelled by looking at pictures of women. She is neither human nor alien—a strange and wicked creature that attracts us, only to concomitantly repel our gaze with her disfiguration.
Currin’s work of course thrives on the anachronism of academic painting, as we see it today. While his pictures appear first and foremost as expert academic paintings, Currin suffuses the core of his oeuvre with a conceptual investigation into the modes and reception of classical painting. In 1998-1999, Currin began his studies in the formal technique of underpainting, popularized in Southern Europe in the seventeenth century and since widely abandoned for the modern method of alla prima—a single application of paint directly onto canvas. This labor-intensive, niche mode of painting allows Currin to render his figures with heightened naturalism and vitality, referencing the antiquated formal practices of the Old Masters and aligning the artist within a conservative tradition of academic figurative painting. His extreme and unflagging commitment to the technique allows Currin to evade pastiche-like irony in favor of a true engagement with the medium. Currin celebrates his conventional adherence to an antiquated painting style; the unsettling absurdity of his work derives from the very conjunction of this traditional mode of working with the perpetually off-key oddities of the subjects he depicts, epitomized by the present work.
Credited with reviving the waning art of representational painting, Currin is a longstanding champion of representational painting and the present work is an emphatic testimony to both his phenomenal practical aptitude and brilliantly perceptive conceptual acumen. The incredibly erudite Currin graduated with his MFA from Yale in 1986, in the same class as the painter Lisa Yuskavage, whose hyper-sexualized, wickedly distorted female figures could play the twice-removed cousins to Currin’s lithe heroines. While Miss Fenwick initially appears to express a classically refined elegance, time spent with the intricately layered painting gradually thwarts this impression, revealing a dormant psychosexual complexity from behind the chiaroscuro shadows that threatens the picture’s deceptively kitsch traditionalism. As Peter Schjeldahl noted, “[Currin’s] figuration is so kinesthetically affecting that it takes a viewer time to notice that, say, a figure’s right arm is roughly twice as long as her left one. Currin’s women may be unreal (he never works from models and rarely from photographs), but they sure are actual. This art bursts upon our imagination before we can organize ourselves to keep it out.” (Peter Schjeldahl, "The Elegant Scavenger," in The New Yorker, February 22 and March 1, 1999)
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