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Redefining the genre of figurative painting in an artistic culture focused on abstraction, post-studio art, video art, and conceptual art, John Currin is one of the most technically talented and daring painters of the last quarter century. Exquisitely executed, The Neverending Story from 1994 embodies the uncanny juxtaposition of everyday images quoted from mundane sources and a darker, surreal undercurrent, a unique melding of styles for which the artist is best known. Looking to art historical giants as disparate as El Greco, Lucas Cranach the Elder, and Otto Dix, Currin flirts with art historical precedent, yet proffers a more modern interpretation of figurative painting. Included in nearly every single important publication about the artist, as well as illustrated as the cover image of exhibition catalogues, trade fiction paperbacks, and rock albums, The Neverending Story endures as both an archetype of Currin’s singular output as well as a favored icon of turn-of-the-century pop culture. Initially inspired by a rum advertisement in a 1970s Playboy magazine, the present work excerpts from pop and consumerist culture in an insistently post-modern fashion. By executing a common or mundane image in a traditional and exquisite technique of oil painting, Currin here displays his singular ability to conflate pop culture with fine art in an uncanny and stunning double portrait.
Relatively anomalistic to the conventional trajectory of an artist first pursuing figurative painting before turning to abstraction, Currin instead was moved to paint by the romance and heroism of Abstract Expressionism. Following explorations in abstraction and collage, Currin executed his first mature body of work in 1989-90, ‘the yearbook paintings,’ featuring (mostly female) teenage sitters in head-and-shoulder portraits, perhaps the inception of an ongoing fascination with the mutability of female archetypes. From Boticelli-like nudes to grotesquely caricatured pinups, Currin’s women elude and embrace the cliché of desire, and reveal both a crudeness and tenderness in the treatment of the female form. Currin’s virtuosity with and unwavering commitment to the technique of academic painting aligns with the antiquated formal practices of the Old Masters and Mannerists, yet conjoining this traditional mode of working with the perpetually off-key oddities of his subjects creates an unsettling absurdity epitomized in The Neverending Story. The present work is among a limited group of paintings featuring a young, attractive woman accompanied by an older man painted against a cloud speckled sky. This series includes Happy Lovers, Lovers, and Lovers in the Country, all executed in 1993, one year prior to the present work. Of this unlikely pairing of a winsome young girl and an abject older man, Robert Rosenblum writes: “[Currin’s] matchmaking is predictably askew. As in earlier Renaissance traditions that caricature mismatched couples (old and young, beautiful and ugly), he dreams up unlikely combinations – a brooding thinker with a sluttish blonde; a teenager in a bathing suit with a dandified country gentleman…Moreover, despite their ostensible embraces, these lovers occupy separate worlds, each immersed in private thoughts and each averting the other’s gaze.” (Robert Rosenblum, “John Currin and the American Grotesque,” in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art (and travelling), John Currin, 2003, p. 20)
Fleecy clouds of ivory dapple a porcelain blue sky, against which two figures loom larger than life. Although the present work is in no way monumental, the upward tilting perspective Currin has employed dwarfs the viewer, as if he or she looks from below toward these caricatures. A ruddy cheeked and dour looking man surveys the landscape to his right, the creases in his skin and bags beneath his eyes revealing his age. His dark red shirt slouches over a paunchy middle, hitched up by a gold buckled belt. Billowing sleeves and a polka-dotted cravat give the appearance of a nineteenth century dandy, their extravagance just slightly out of place with contemporary dress. A nubile woman wraps her left arm around the man’s shoulders, the delicate fingers clasped at her companion’s collar. She gazes adoringly up at him, her exaggerated doe-like eyes focused on his distracted expression. In contrast to the deep wrinkles in his brow, the woman’s smooth skin reveals nothing more than a light peony blush at the apples of her cheeks, a peachy glow alluding to her ripe age. Underscoring the stark contrast between these two figures are their modes of dress: he fully clothed, and she wearing nothing but a vivid cerulean bikini, a perverted Madonna clad in blue. Her auburn locks frame her youthful face in a lush and flattering fringe, the dark color of which enhances the scarlet rose of her mouth. Currin has rendered this woman in Rubens-esque flesh, the light apricot skin tone contoured with lilac shadows and pale peach brushstrokes. Although not a literal self-portrait, in many ways, the two figures represent the artist’s deepest desires and fears: “Currin wrote that the imagined women who became his paintings are at a stage of ‘impotence, inactivity, suspension,’ and he appropriates this ‘stagnation as a mirror of how [he] feels all the time.’”(The artist cited in “Cherchez la femme PEINTRE! – A Parkett Inquiry,” Parkett, no. 37, 1993, p. 146, reproduced in Staci Boris, “The Lovers, the Invalids, and the Socialites,” in Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (and travelling), John Currin, 2003, p. 48)
Credited with reviving the waning art of representational painting, Currin is a longstanding champion of figuration, and the present work is an emphatic testimony to both his phenomenal practical aptitude and brilliantly perceptive conceptual acumen. Moreover, The Neverending Story is a resounding testament to the postmodern tendencies of repetitive use and reuse of hackneyed images from everyday life, itself now subversively assuming its position as an icon in the canon of Twentieth Century art history.
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