Challenging conventions of good taste, the naturalism of representational painting, and clichéd ideals of sexuality, Jamita’s Sister exemplifies Currin’s radical conceptual endeavor within the trajectory of figuration. Belonging to a series of highly regarded paintings from the early 1990s depicting fictionalized portraits of older women uncannily hindered by physical oddities and corporeal exaggerations, Jamita’s Sister represents one of Currin’s earliest mature inquiries into the terrain of social commentary. Currin described the critical group of paintings to which the present work belongs as “paintings of old women at the end of the cycle of sexual potential, between the object of desire and the object of loathing.” (the artist quoted in Kara Vander Weg and Rose Dergan, Eds., John Currin, New York, 2006, p. 27) Jamita’s Sister displays a woman with an abrasively arresting physique—her protruding clavicle, sharp facial contours, and flattened chest epitomize Currin’s engagement with the tension between the real and the surreal, banality and the supernormal. Her languid, sinuous physique is entirely desexualized, while her body’s coarseness is emphasized against the shallow grisaille backdrop. The figure’s elongated arms bend at the edges of the frame, forming sharp diagonals that foil her compacted, quadrilateral torso. Currin explained the impetus behind this series of matronly, upper crust women just slightly past their prime: “I thought of these women as harlequins, the way that Picasso looked at circus people as a corny way of talking about his own ruthlessness… These women had no more sexual value; they were only interested in culture, like museum patrons. These women mirrored my situation as a painter and the political problem of being a painter. My existence was questioned as a painter. When I was making these paintings, my validity as an artist was greatly challenged.” (John Currin quoted in Ibid., p. 39)
With his masterful wit and incisive social intelligence, Currin mobilizes and probes our voyeuristic impulses—drawn to her exaggerated, naked chest but subsequently deterred by the brusque rigidity of her body, he interrogates the motives and desires impelled by looking at pictures of women. In his early paintings from 1991 to 1997, Currin exposes portraiture’s long history of scopophilia and fetishism—particularly in depictions of women—by presenting obstacles to pure, unfettered enjoyment and consumption: “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 Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, John Currin, 2006, p. 30) Jamita’s Sister is anything but a passive object of desire; she assumes a powerful stance with her arms rested on her hips and her head confidently titled sideways; an exceptionally brash self-presentation. Not adhering to conventional, traditional codes of beauty as laid out by the history of portraiture, Currin proposes an antagonistic relationship between viewer and image. Rather than exploiting his subject, Currin endows the figure with exceptional autonomy in her prosaic stature. Beyond battling contemporary aversions toward figurative painting, the present work illuminates Currin’s piercing gift for provocatively exposing “the follies, foibles, and deformations of our shallow times.” (John Currin quoted in Kim Levin, “Agent Provocateur,” The Village Voice, Nov. 26, 2003, p. 95)
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 portraiture. Currin’s painting celebrates his conventional adherence to an ostensibly antiquated form of figuration; 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. Redefining figurative painting amidst a preponderant landscape of abstraction, John Currin is one of the most technically virtuosic and conceptually daring painters of the last quarter century. Credited with reviving the waning art of representational painting, Currin is a longstanding champion of the genre and the present work is emphatic testimony to both his phenomenal practical aptitude and brilliantly perceptive conceptual acumen. While Jamita’s Sister initially appears to express a classically refined elegance and sophistication in her posied confidence, time spent with the intricately layered painting gradually thwarts this impression, revealing from behind the chiaroscuro shadows a dormant psychosexual complexity threatening 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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