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Europe versus America
John Currin’s argument in pictures
" John Currin Selects "
At the Museum of Fine Arts’ Foster Gallery through January 4.

A friend of mine who knows about such things was carrying on recently about an all-too-familiar phenomenon, the inverse relationship between the degree of artistic merit and the amount of money spent on the artmaking. The topic happened to be Jackie Chan movies, how film quality plummets as film budgets soar, but it might just as well have been about the new exhibit " John Currin Selects " at the Museum of Fine Arts — with the difference that " John Currin Selects " is a low-budget spectacular.

With the exception of one painting, one work in pastel, and one ridiculous Victorian sculpture, the whole show consists of 29 oil paintings drawn from the MFA’s own holdings. Many of the works will be immediately familiar to museumgoers, since they’ve been on display in various galleries for years; others, in the words of the show’s press release, were " pulled from the deepest recesses of storage. " So what makes such recycling a noteworthy event? Answer: the energy, wit, and intelligence of the curator, artist John Currin.

The result of the MFA’s fiscal lowballing is a deeply informed, magnificently uneven, deliberately personal exhibit that cost little more than the paint required to freshen up the Foster Gallery and whatever stipend Mr. Currin received. True, in-house staff probably put in plenty of hours assisting him in those storage vaults, but this had to have been a lot cheaper than your average import-heavy blockbuster.

Of course, there’s more to it than that, and the real success of the exhibit strikes you as soon as you enter the Foster Gallery, where you’re greeted by the one painting the museum doesn’t own, Currin’s own bizarre and monumental Gold Chain and Dirty Rags. This is a portrait of a wispy, swaggering, subtly deformed young woman — if her hips weren’t so wide, you’d swear she was anorectic — whose gaze meets yours with the penetrating assaultiveness of disturbed youth. She all but smells of self-destruction; what ought to be the curves of her body read like right angles, and her mouth hovers between a kiss and a profanity. By positioning this accomplished, unsettling, idiosyncratic work at the Foster Gallery’s entrance, Currin gives you a clue as to the nature of the entire show — his argument with American painting and his enthusiasm for the European tradition from which our own æsthetic has departed.

" John Currin Selects " holds up as one of those modest yet exceptional exhibits in which the wall text proves as integral as the constituent objects, providing enough provocative discourse to stimulate thought without turning the show into an illustrated lecture. One of Currin’s overriding themes, and the locus of his most serious judgment, concerns what he sees as the shortcomings of the American painting tradition — agenda-riddled, didactic, flat — as opposed to its European counterpart, which prizes art as a sensual, lived experience. Although the concept isn’t particularly new, his approach proves bracing. He observes that what’s wrong with American painting — its over-attention to " plot, " its creation of " allegories with images but never with the actual touch [brushstroke] " — is exactly what’s right with American film. On the other hand, what’s right with European painting — its lush indulgence in the medium of oil paint, its lyricism — is what’s wrong with European movies.

For the American a painting is a single frame from a movie held still, whereas for the European a movie is painting in motion. " When looking at a European film, " Currin says, " I get uneasy knowing . . . I have to sit through the whole damn thing. Yet with American films (a good one), you don’t get nervous that it’s going to last for two hours. I think that’s because Americans don’t work out of a painting tradition. . . . For Americans painting is always the story, never the form. In Europe there is always a deep sincerity in the making of the form that is not evident in American art. "

You’ll be impressed by this argument when you see Charles Deas’s cartoonish 1846 painting The Voyagers, which depicts three men and a dog paddling in a canoe down a tumultuous river, against the same wall as Claude Monet’s Road at La Cavée, Pourville (1882), which depicts a feathery confection of pastel brushstrokes that become a narrow path through hills teeming with flowers. The Deas reads like oil paint in the service of an insurance claim or a surveyor’s record; the Monet reads like a celebration of color and texture in the service of form.

But not all American painting is enslaved to allegory and narrative — some artists on our side of the Atlantic are capable of the voluptuousness and abandonment that Currin sees in the Europeans. In fact, one of the great delights of this show is Currin’s identification of the relatively unknown American painter Horace Pippin (1888–1946) as a masterful artist. Pippin’s one work in the exhibit, Country Doctor (Night Call) (1935), hints at expressionism and abstraction. Done in blacks and whites and grays, the upper half of the canvas could belong to Willem de Kooning or Richard Serra with its exploding striations of wind-blown sleet. Gradually you detect a human-seeming figure making its way in darkness across snow-covered ground. But the ground isn’t covered only in snow; oddly shaped angular black spaces abound (they look like cut-outs done with an exacto knife), and your eyes turn them into tree stumps and footprints and streams. Currin’s point is that in Pippin’s work the paint itself conveys the story. The colors and composition and forms act independently of the objects being depicted; Country Doctor evokes as well as narrates.

Another and parallel point the show makes relates to the misunderstood idea that painting is true to life. What can be true to life, Currin asks, that is itself wholly manipulated and not living? How can oil paint that mimics the human form qualify as anything but fake? Currin concludes that all representational painting — figures, landscapes, still lifes — distorts. Further, he goes on to suggest that far from being the medium’s shortcoming, distortion is actually painting’s greatest fulfillment, since only through distortion does a painter interpret the world.

Blood of the Redeemer, by the Italian Mannerist Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529–1592), proves a small marvel of orchestrated distortions. Christ the bodybuilder is simultaneously towering and normal-sized: his head bumps up against Heaven, but he’s no taller than his own cross. And the cross reads not as a crucifix but as a javelin that Jesus seems positioned to throw. In the foreground, a dove drinks blood from a snake-encircled chalice, the blood pouring in a thin stream from the small wound in Jesus’s side.

The painting stands little more than a foot tall and a few inches wide, yet its refined, outrageous misrepresentations reinterpret the meaning of redemption and of Christian iconography, a powerful, sexually charged Christ implying a connection between salvation and orgasm. Compare Blood of the Redeemer with the adjoining work by the American William Rimmer (1816–1879) and Currin’s point becomes almost unassailable. Evening (The Fall of Day) depicts no less muscular a male, but he’s allegorical, an Icarus on steroids, with his tremendous wings spread midair and his body arched backward as if he were about to do a back flip.

Something Currin doesn’t discuss is the curious asexuality of the Rimmer compared with the abundant sexuality of the Passarotti. For all his ripped abs, bulging shoulders, and popping biceps, Rimmer’s hunk has nothing between his legs. (I was reminded of Herb Ritts’s airbrushing out Bill T. Jones’s genitals in his otherwise oversized photo of the dancer on display a few years ago in the same museum.) Passarotti, on the other hand, doesn’t just make the Redeemer’s crotch his centerpiece (it’s in the center of the frame, and all the lines of Christ’s body as well as the cloth he’s wearing point to it), he manages to imply the Savior’s mighty manhood. The thick drapery that wraps around Christ’s waist reaches to the cross and, pendulous, wraps around it, its shape further echoed by a scroll at his feet. Maybe it’s not the preponderance of plot but the missing of mojo that renders American painting weak.

Portraits by Velázquez, Matisse, and Manet dwarf their American analogues by John Singleton Copley, Joseph Hirsch, and Robert Earle Henri. But Maxfield Parrish’s Hill Top Farm, Winter, which Currin holds up as emblematic of American painting’s dull stasis, ultimately points to the limits of his analysis. With an otherworldly phosphorescence, Parrish transforms a postcard-like New England scene into a hushed, decorous Armageddon. Still, the fun of " John Currin Selects " has nothing to do with his winning or losing the argument. Just being part of it is satisfying.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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