Review: John Currin at DHC.

November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

DHC/ART: John Currin (français) from DHC/ART on Vimeo.

John Currin first rose to prominence in the 1990s as a self-styled ‘reactionary painter’. He creates often graphic images which are sometimes taken from pornography and kitsch illustration, sometimes displaying fantasies about the private lives of the elderly or European libertinage. The Montreal gallery DHC Art held an impressive little retrospective of his work culled from divers collections. When looking at a Currin painting, I often feel like I should be ensconced in velvet, but that didn’t happen here. Rather, the paintings were spread over several highly compartmentalized and sterile concrete rooms, which made their strange sensual quality that much more amplified.

Currin perpetually nods to art history with composition – often recalling the Old Masters and the Rococo – while spooning in technique borrowed from abstraction, folk art or anywhere else. He’s technically marvellous most of the time. Few painters could paint diluted blood surrounding a turkey carcass with the same degree of excruciating delicacy and precision. His hyper realist details often jar with other elements of a painting which are blurred and with senses of scale and proportion that often seem like a stilted joke.

What’s always been crucial in his work is walking along the brink of sentimentality. It’s an issue far more serious than it sounds. If, as Wyndham Lewis once argued, modern art is much of anything in particular, it has been excessively romantic and sentimental, all the while attempting to extricate itself from cheap emotionality (and usually only making things worse).

It’s tempting to read his works as satirical, but there is more to it than that. You can laugh at a Currin painting – and sometimes they are quite funny – but that doesn’t take away from how crudely tragic they are in their pessimism and their simultaneous pleasure in, and denigration of, nostalgia. It’s tragedy, like all good tragedy, however, that degrades the empathic response, alienating it via grotesqueness for something less shallow and harder to swallow. There’s something bordering on the Elizabethan in their gratuitousness and garbled collision of seemingly incompatible languages.

John Currin ran at DHC Art from June 30-November 13.

– Matthew Purvis

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