Engaging with art historical precedents ranging from the Northern Renaissance to twentieth-century portraiture, the present work intelligently reconsiders classic academic portraiture through a painterly confluence of images. In The Florist, Currin sets his figure against an indistinguishable dark background, consistent with traditional Dutch portraiture and still-life painting; reminiscent of the work of Flemish masters Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jacob Vosmaer. In sharp contrast to the fantasy bouquets in Brueghel or Vosmaer’s work, Currin depicts daisies, carnations and a hydrangea, all ordinary stems found with any street side vendor. The Florist, framed amidst this Dutch-like tableau of bodega flowers, confounds our expectations, presenting itself as an entirely fresh twist on both the portraiture and still-life genres: “Currin’s growing gallery of fictive portraits and genre scenes are animated by these anachronistic elements, allowing Currin’s painting to radiate a freshness paradoxically siphoned from a heap of dead corpses” (Allison Gingeras, “John Currin: Pictor Vilgaris,” in Kara Vander Weg and Rose Dergan, Eds., John Currin, New York 2006, p. 44).
The Florist was featured in the 2003 exhibition of Currin’s work at Sadie Coles HQ in London together with Rachel in the Garden (2003), a portrait modeled after the artist’s wife, Rachel Feinstein. Whereas Rachel looks straight out from amidst the blooms, confronting the viewer directly, the male figure in The Florist subverts our gaze and sets up a more voyeuristic encounter. Diametric themes in Currin’s work introduce an emotional tension that holds our attention; love and lust, the masculine and feminine, certainty and coyness are a few counterpoints within which The Florist can be experienced. Are we catching the subject lost in a moment as he inhales the fragrant aroma of the vividly painted flower surrounding him? Is this a man who is deeply in love? Or, is he struggling with a secret? The power in the subtlety of emotions evoked by the subject suggests to us that he is a complicated individual where the issues are unclear.
The effeminate features and pronounced, delicately painted eyelashes suggest a certain level of gender and sexual ambiguity: “In Currin, gay desire has the structure of the open secret: being shameful, it has to be hidden; yet it always betrays itself, it is always giving away the game through signs and visual cues that are, well, just unmistakable” (Norman Bryson, “Maudit: John Currin and Morphology,” in ibid., pp. 21-22). The feminine features and masculine square jawline of The Florist create an intriguing uncertainty and sense of androgyny. Is he coyly hiding or is he quietly inviting you in? Is the big reveal actually on the part of the viewer who is suddenly aware of their own preconceptions about sexual identity? We have guessed that The Florist is gay just by looking. The painting could perhaps even contain elements of self-portraiture, in which Currin acts as an allegorical Florist, selectively picking and choosing stylistic elements and art historical references to arrange and redefine his hybrid, exquisite, composition. When asked if Currin’s features were ever in his paintings, he answered, “Oh, yes. I always project myself on them – incorporate my face, hands, and back in the figures…I basically project myself onto everything rather than reveal a lot about other people” (John Currin: “Interview with John Currin” by Rochelle Steiner, John Currin, Chicago 2003, p. 77).
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