Artist John Currin returns to the traditional forms of the marriage portrait for a new exhibition this month at Sadie Coles’s Davies Street exhibition space, bringing his uniquely vivd painterly techniques and often wry sense of humor to bear on a series of five new canvases. Drawing on Currin’s long study of historical forms and context, the show continues the artist’s simultaneous study and subversion of the act of portraiture.
Like so much of Currin’s work, the pieces on view at Sadie Coles HQ are rooted in historical background. Sexual personae and social constructs take center stage, twisted and often undermined by the artist’s subtle sense of caricature. Bodies are twisted and tweaked with delicate accents on the face and form. Noses protrude out from the face, torsos reach out to exaggerated lengths, or hips swell out to create almost circular body parts. These moments of physical commentary bring Currin’s willingness to bend the rules of portraiture to delve deeper into layers of raw physical energy (both in his own depiction and in the personalities of his sitters) than more studied approaches to portraiture allow. Throughout, the facial expressions of his figures, from placid moments to a frenzy that emphasizes the livelihood of his models, and the act of their depiction.
Yet with these new works, Currin pulls new twists and tricks out of his hat, covering figures with clusters of divergent material (ice cream cones, fish, playing cards, and other detritus) that initiate a double operation on the histories of painting he so frequently plays with. Currin’s figures are covered in the signifiers of the painterly still-life, as if each sitter had picked up a table’s worth of material and placed it upon their persons. In one particularly impressive work, Red Shoe, the artist tops the female figure with a pitcher and baguette, objects that lend an impressive sense of balance to the image while playing on the physical curves of the human forehead. The curves of the pitcher, twisting down the side of his figure’s face, seems so naturally placed that its surreal addition almost dissolves into the artist’s graceful sense of color and movement.
For it’s this sense of the possibilities of paint that has long made Currin such an impressive talent in the construction of his images. His ability to collide forms and formats to such historically and comically-aware forms underscores a sense of the format as both intrinsically rooted in tradition, and endlessly open to experimentation. Here, the portrait form, particularly that of a marriage portrait, becomes a space for the marriage of varied painterly traditions, and a site for the exploration of varied modes of personality and sexuality in turn.
Currin’s work is on view through January 21st.
— D. Creahan