kitsch and the scandal of discovery

Maybe its about our ingrained habits of denying what we know, but don’t want to know.What could be termed disavowal. A dark, musty zone between knowing and unknowing. There is nothing sexually overt in John Currin’s paintings, an absence of violence, no meaningful unhappiness, no poverty, sickness or crime.Still, it raises the issue of manufactured content in art, something  contrived that negates the art historical tradition, or at best a mocking or teasing of the past. Still, and compellingly, is is a presentation of disavowal in a manner that forces the viewer to question some perplexing contradictions.

As Mathis has stated, “Art is the creation of an artifact that is it’s own argument. It does not need a theory to define it, a critic to contextualize it, or a milieu to give it meaning. A true work of art transcends “relevance.” Artistically speaking, relevance is irrelevant. It comes back to the issue of the phantom depth problem of avant garde modern art.In part, the explanation is our existence in a society addicted to mass distributed innocence and an equal attraction for mass produced sleaze.

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…Old Master techniques with raw sexual imagery. By and large its innocuous female nudes. Sort of. Graphic, slightly over the top; almost caricaturial. There is some exploitation of women and some insight into the politics of desire in art. A certain disavowal and a somewhat ironic posture vis a vis the manufacture of innnocence industry. The mixture of high and low culture eats away at art history tradition while showing reverence for it. The association with Norman Rockwell is not incidental, as Currin represents another aspect of latent sexuality tempered by some ironic separation.Rockwell’s paintings do produce an innocent world, and to that degree they are acts of disavowal. But at the same time, under the veil of innocence, they often present potentially disruptive materials that challenges the viewer to see and recognize. Rockwell’s work thus laid bare a certain mechanism of disavowal and what he painted was  not innocence itself but its manufacture. The viewer had the ethical choice of seeing or not. Currin’s work also feeds into  American culture’s particular addiction to its sense of self and as such is also a great analyst of the American condition.

---Currin described them as ‘paintings of old women at the end of their cycle of sexual potential … between the object of desire and the object of loathing’—a deliberately sexist barb aimed at the ‘politically correct’ art establishment. Kim Levin, a critic for the Village Voice, took the bait. ‘Boycott this show’…Currin’s response to Levin’s outrage was something along the lines of: ‘You want sexism? I’ll give you sexism!’ A few years later he presented an instantly notorious group of paintings of women with basketball-sized breasts and faces done in craggy impasto acting out various soft-porn scenarios.”...While Currin has undoubtably made sexist remarks in the past, he also seems to be constantly seeking out controversy, possibly to begin a dialogue about female sexuality. Read More:

Currin, like Rockwell, goes back to this notion of American innocence, a mythological animal that can be killed of repeatedly yet magically arise in new and different forms when least expected. Like Rockwell, Currin’s work derives its tension from tapping into some of the disturbing styles of American innocence. His paintings are more shadowy, obscure and complex than most are willing to see. The parallel with Rockwell is that they are not so much innocuous or cheekily innocent as they are about the ways we create innocence, shape it, and present it. After all, innocence is a manufactured commodity not a state we are born to; an illusory story, a fantasy we tell about ourselves and share and not something we really are.

Q You’re famous for basing paintings on porn, but you also use everyday women’s magazines. What do women’s magazines and porn have in common?
A A lot of the pornography I use as sources are from the [1970s] heyday of Cosmo and Playboy. Cosmo was a pretty racy magazine in those years, too. But I was always more interested in women’s magazines than men’s magazines, because they’re more spectacular … and there’s actually more women in them. Ha! There’s more women in those magazines than there are in, like, Playboy. Playboy, you know, half of it’s like Norman Mailer or something….

---The ridiculously oversized breasts and recycled Playboy poses, you see, make for a scathing criticism of male desire. However, they do it not by rescuing the yielding female from tradition, so often the aim of feminist art, but by making the cliché inescapable. At the same time, showing elderly women as bare-breasted objects of desire gives them newfound poignancy and respect. The rebelliousness and obvious parody seem to vanish when it suits the observer. Currin's brash, retro innocence comes with just as many outs. With his pastiches of Lucas Cranach and others, Currin sees himself as the last serious painter. Read More:

Q You’ve admitted in past interviews that your paintings are sexist. Why do you continue with them?
A Well, I’m bothered by [the sexist aspect] more now. I didn’t used to be. It shouldn’t bother me, I suppose, because I want to make a good painting, that’s the only thing I care about. And if the painting has sexist imagery, I don’t think that affects the goodness or badness of the painting. But it does affect my emotional state, and it’s started to bother me more and more. Read More:

Innocence is a choice not to know something, and therefore a lie, since the very choice must be based on some presentiment, some suspicion, some minimal fragments  knowledge we have already assimilated. So,  innocence is a pretense of ignorance, a pretense that lives and is performed not so much for others as for ourselves. But,  innocence can only be manufactured through a process of disavowal. The American condition. From Ronald Reagan’s Its a new morning in America to Obama “Change we can beleive in.”

There is a distinction here between repression, which  banishes unwanted knowledge and desires to the unconscious, where they are no longer available to draw on. Disavowal, in opposition, is in

ous since its basis is a division of the self , meaning we simultaneously know and yet are ignorant of something. An ambivalent co-existence between the conscious and unconscious. Ultimately, it substitutes a phony and artificial belief in personal purity  for a complicated and trying engagement with the self and the world at large as it really is.

---Haber:Does art still have a space for political critique or imaginative self-recognition? I see it at times in Currin. I see it more often, though not always, in Yuskavage. Maybe most of all, the postmodern paradox helps me see again the heritage of criticism and challenge in Modernism, from Pablo Picasso's wild women to abstract art under Stalin. In fact, I could look back even further, to another kind of harsh realism—that of Gustave Courbet and his encounter with vision, sex, and paint. When I saw the bare, naked ladies, I thought of Courbet's nude. Spread so that she falls toward the viewer's space, she has the very center of her body most exposed. When I saw those rough patches on Currin's faces, I thought of Courbet's scumbled rocks. They seem about to come alive in one's hands. When I saw the equation of seeing with desire, scandal, and kitsch, I thought of how Courbet supposedly shocked nineteenth-century Paris. He already painted unathletic women with pubic hair. Has the old man come once more to exploit sex, or has he come to confess the limits of his desire and its necessity to his art? As with Currin, the ambivalence will not go away soon, but at least Courbet's still shakes me up. Currin knows enough to see through the reduction of women to sex objects. Will he ever make me see more than that as well? Read More: image:

As art, it comes full circle: do what extent do you destroy art history? To make art feed into the propaganda industry you have to kill off part of arts original definition thorough an imperative to create political art and define itself by some form of ideology.  Then we have art with non-aesthetic content. The art business, industry, the highest prices and the most press is given over to works that are  defined almost entirely by its non-aesthetic content.In other words,  socio-politics which tends to disappoint both politically and as art. Does the shock component fail   because it fails to shock, to inform, or support or complement a coherent theory of progression. The question with Currin’s art is whether it engages in a mimicry of  historical forms by satirizing or mocking or banalizing  the  poetic myths that gave life to these forms. Is the depth only a phantom?


Art since Modernism art depends on contradiction more than ever. Now that shocks never come easily, neither homage nor parody alone can do the job. They can hardly even cause controversy. Pop Art, Surrealism, and Willem de Kooning nudes, to name only a few, anticipate Currin with a third alternative. Their love-hate relationship to popular culture and the past remains exhilarating. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, or Gerhard Richter have restored beauty and affection to parody, while they smear or utterly erase the traces of their affection….

---By his retrospective, John Currin had already gone through change after change in the hope of keeping alive the pleasures of kitsch and the scandal of discovering it. More than two years later, he tries so hard it hurts, and it takes a patient soul to mistake the variety of desperate measures for a versatile imagination. ...Critics pointed in particular to paintings of an old man and boy, hung side by side. The former's sagging flesh looks more like Play-Doh to me than signs of age, and the implication that Currin is seeing the same person in youth and age does not add anything profound. Still, at least these devices suggest conscious artifice. If only Currin could stop having his clit and eating it, too. Read More: image:

…At Currin’s retrospective, I never did quite find an answer. I hoped for variations on a theme, but I found instead repeated attempts to pin a theme down. I feel for the self-assertion and the somewhat obvious sense of humor, but I never shared in his awe or laughter. I saw an artist willing both to revere and criticize tradition, but never able to escape the blandness that leaves. Call him the Norman Rockwell of post-feminist art. Maybe it makes sense that one of his biggest supporters at The Times is working on a book about Rockwell….

---(2006):There is a lot of naked skin in both of these shows, but the skin of the paintings themselves is the most telling. Mr. Currin paints with a kind of innocent lightness and ease that is open and vulnerable, even joyful, but also a little too easily pleased. His strange juxtapositions, hints of unclear gender and disconcerting physical details, give his paintings an undertow that still feels unformed in its ambiguity, as if it is waiting to be brought out. Mr. Freud’s surface is tough, overt yet closed, almost like a turtle’s shell, but also insistent and dissatisfied. He understands that painting demands physical reinvention: an idea that only occasionally dawns on Mr. Currin. It may be that one artist thinks he has all the time in the world, while the other knows he doesn’t. But Mr. Currin leaves us hanging as to whether the problem runs deeper. Read More: image:

Like the barmaid in Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère or her counterpart by Jeff Wall, Currin’s women enact a male’s fantasy but refuse to return his gaze.Read More:
Q So are you lucky to work in art, where sexual imagery is often accepted, even if it’s creepy?
A Well, I’m not a powerful man. Weiner and that IMF guy — these are the type of guys that are always saying, “Don’t you know who I am?!?” But maybe that’s what I mean — I now have this terrible, nagging feeling that I’m basically pulling a Weiner on people with my paintings or something like that! Ha! But I don’t get a thrill out of startling somebody with sexual imagery. I really don’t. So that is the part that troubles me. It bothered me that my kids couldn’t come to my studio for a couple of years, and it bothered me what my parents would think. I didn’t make those [more sexual or pornographic] paintings in order to shock. It was really because, for whatever weird or normal reason, I was preoccupied with that imagery.

Q So what have you figured out in 20 years about sexual desire, or about beauty?
A Something occurred to me just last week: beauty and happiness often seem to go together, but I don’t think that they do…. Read More:

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