Kara Vander Weg and Rose Dergan, Eds., John Currin, New York 2006, p. 271, illustrated in colour
Currin’s oeuvre is rich in allusion to Old Master paintings, and whilst his portraits evade direct visual reference, they often harbour a persistent and uncanny resemblance to the work or style of certain artists. The painters of the Northern Renaissance, from Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer to Cranach and Dürer, sit amongst his greatest sources of influence. Re-envisaged in contemporary scenarios, Currin’s curious portraits provide compelling meditations on many of art history’s most enduring precedents. Fascinated by the oft unwavering depiction of the female subject throughout history, with its voyeuristic and scopophilic undertones, Currin’s paintings point to a society that remains, in many ways, unchanged: “I think that painting has always been essentially about women,” he writes, “about looking at things in the same way that a straight man looks at a woman. The urge to objectify is more a male urge than a female one, and painting is one of the most personal and succinct methods of male objectification of the female” (John Currin cited in: ‘Cherchez la femme Peintre! A Parkett Inquiry’, Parkett, No. 37, 1993, p. 146). The title of the present work pertains to the Roman goddess of wisdom, warfare, poetry and art, who was similarly portrayed by Rembrandt in 1635. In Rembrandt’s Minerva – as in Currin’s – the female subject is set against a quintessentially shadowy backdrop, and dressed in a satin lilac robe. Whilst her flowing blonde locks are crowned with a flourishing garland of leaves, however, Currin’s Minerva is sardonically adorned on either side of her temple with two crisp and withering green leaves, just past their prime: a playful inference to one of art history’s most venerable symbols for the fleeting transience of beauty and life.
Exhibited in a number of internationally acclaimed exhibitions, including ones at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 2002, and the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 2003, Minerva encapsulates Currin’s hallmark style of portraiture in which Old Master bravura meets the gritty realities of contemporary life in a union as unlikely as it is sagaciously astute. Minerva’s overzealous smile, stretched to reveal a dazzling and oddly distended set of teeth, becomes an empty parody of the all-American dream. In drawing from a culture infatuated with unattainable beauty ideals, cosmetic surgery, airbrushing and a longing for eternal youth, Currin’s paintings provide a social critique on an image-saturated world that is simultaneously desirable and disconcerting. For Currin, painting inevitably becomes a means of self-reflexive introspection in which his own sentiments – the good, the bad and the ugly – are projected onto his canvases. As he explains, “if there’s a reverse logic to my work, it’s that the pictures of men are about men and the pictures of woman are about me” (John Currin cited in: A. M. Homes, ‘V. F. Portrait: John Currin,’ Vanity Fair, September 2011, online). His wife and long-time muse Rachel Feinstein similarly becomes incorporated into many of his portraits, and indeed her recognisable features are caricatured in the present work. Beautifully seductive and rivetingly bizarre, Minerva flutters between high-art and mass culture, the ancient and the contemporary, the eternal and the ephemeral, metaphorically contemplating a world in constant flux.
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