- John Currin
- Tilted Head
- signed and dated 2014 on the overlap
- oil on canvas
- 14 x 17 in. 35.6 x 43.2 cm.
While his pictures appear first and foremost as expert academic paintings, the foundation of Currin’s corpus is infused with a predominating conceptual investigation into the modes and reception of classical painting. Most indicative of this pursuit is the artist’s fundamental loyalty to the formal technique of underpainting, which he began studying in the late 1990s. Popularized in Southern Europe in the Seventeenth Century and since widely abandoned, underpainting facilitates a process by which the artist creates his compositions through a series of painted layers. Often executed in monochromatic or grisaille tones, the labor-intensive process of underpainting helps to define the chromatic values of the final work and allows Currin to render his figures with heightened naturalism and vitality. By way of this formal engagement with his medium, Currin celebrates his conventional adherence to an antiquated painting style and aligns himself with a conservative tradition of academic figurative painting; the unsettling quality 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, as evidence in Tilted Head.
Angled to near distortion, the female visage that fills the compositional frame of Tilted Head bears all the marks of Currin’s technical gravitas whilst simultaneously encapsulating the fundamental uncanniness of his unique aesthetic. Though cropped at the shoulders and divorced from any sort of readily discernible narrative, Tilted Head nonetheless is immediately recognizable as belonging to a specific coterie of thematic portraits that Currin has returned to and continued to explore throughout his career. Currin professionally came of age in the 1990s, and his corpus has been informed from its very inception by the environment of decadence that described that era. In much of his work, there is an abounding and explicit tension between art history and mass culture, which Currin piercingly articulates through a deliberately selected vernacular of kitsch, desire, vulgarity, and art historical reference. Informed by such diverse stylistic inspirations as Norman Rockwell, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Gustave Courbet, Currin approached each canvas as a mirror to reflect and parody the excess that he saw around him.
Cloaked in fur and caught in a paradoxically disquieting moment of joy, the face in Tilted Head presents itself as a contemporaneous reiteration of the piercing artistic commentary that Currin has propounded since the earliest days of his career. Like his 2001 canvas Rachel in Fur, inspired by his wife and muse Rachel Feinstein as an aloof and highly manicured woman of largesse, Currin’s treatment of the main figure in Tilted Head belies the initial impression of carefree enjoyment that the composition suggests. In both works, the figures’ outward appearances are representations of a life lived in in the comfort of luxury goods, yet their nuanced facial expressions convey a narrative that is rife with entrancing yet discomfiting perplexity. 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. While Tilted Head initially appears to express a classically refined elegance, time spent with the intricately layered painting gradually thwarts this impression, revealing a dormant complexity 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... 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)