John Currin: Reflections on Contemporary Society

David Morris

In this essay, I will look at the paintings of the contemporary American painter John Currin. I will examine his oeuvre and attempt to illustrate his portrayal of beauty, gender roles, and behaviour as something not innate, but socially constructed. To do this, I will make a case for Currin’s paintings of middle-aged women as an expression and reflection of the dominant cultural views of women of this age. In addition to his portrayals of women, I will look at his representation of homosexuality. I will also discuss the interaction between cultural relativity and the construction of both beauty and gender.

Currin’s style harkens back to the time of the so-called geniuses of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque periods. Currin acknowledges that his “… guiltiest pleasure is that [he] really like[s] high culture. [He] really like[s] old painting” [1]. However, unlike the artists of the Renaissance that he admires, Currin’s work does not have a specific type of beauty, an ideal beauty that he creates again and again, as can be seen in the oeuvres of Botticelli and Leonardo. Currin exaggerates the proportions of the female body and sometimes renders it with a heavily painted face to illustrate how beauty is a construction of society. This is perhaps due to the fact that he lives in a postmodern society, where grand-narratives and the belief in ideals have been, for the most part, rejected. In today’s postmodern society, a culturally relative understanding of beauty carries a lot of weight, much more than the ideal beauties that Renaissance artists sought to depict. Most cultural relativists would argue that:

The customs of different societies are all that exist. These customs cannot be said to be ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ for that implies we have an independent standard of right and wrong by which they may be judged. But there is no such independent standard; every standard is culture-bound.[2]

This is to say that beauty, like any other concept, is a culturally relative phenomenon, which does not owe itself to any conception of an ideal. Historically, female beauty has been created and dispersed by those in power. The relationship between the people who create our society’s notion of beauty, (e.g. the cosmetic and fashion industries), and those within our society is a hegemonic one. This is because the beauty industry popularizes a specific standard of beauty that is difficult to achieve. People attempt to emulate the ideal models that are plastered on top of buildings and that adorn the covers and inner pages of magazines. Those who create the predominant sets of guidelines that define beauty prey on both men and women, but it is women who have historically been at the center of their control. In examining Western society, John Berger notes that a woman’s appearance is her most valuable asset, or conversely, her appearance can be her strongest hindrance from being perceived as a “successful woman.” A woman’s beauty, argues Berger, dictates her future:

She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.[3]

Currin’s interest in women’s issues and women’s position within society is the crucial sociological interest manifest in his art.

Currin’s paintings from the 1990s are primarily about sex, gender, and the person inside the body. One of the interesting facts about the women that he portrayed during the early 1990s is that they are not the typical group most male artists tend to depict. The women that are painted on the canvases of many male artists are typically young, thin, and very attractive. Alternatively, many of Currin’s portraits are of middle-aged women, as demonstrated by his Skinny Woman (1992), Nadine Gordimer (1992), and Ms. Omni (1993). In each portrait, the woman occupies the majority of the canvas, which has as its background a soft tone of beige, green or gray. With Skinny Woman and Ms. Omni, the subject’s gaze is directed off the canvas, away from the viewer. The commonality that links the three paintings, as well as Currin’s other paintings of middle-aged and elderly women from this period, is the representation of woman as separate from her own sexuality. There is the sense of the woman’s physicality, as well as the idea that there is a body underneath the clothes that each woman wears. The bodies being clothed are very thin and do not attract the viewer’s attention. This is due to the abnormally-sized heads of these women. The head of Ms. Omni is too large for her body, while the head of the skinny woman is too small. In the Nadine Gordimer portrait, her head is excessively large, which is perhaps intended to emphasize her intelligence, and is reinforced by the passive posture of the rest of her body. Her hands are purposefully resting on her lap and the clothes that she wears bare no trace of any physical body underneath. Furthermore, Currin notes that these women are all divorced [4]. In addition to his creating of a history for his women, he had other psychological intentions that compelled him to portray women as lacking a sexual body. Currin states that:

At the beginning, there was no sexual element in my work, or at least there was no evidence of me thinking about sexual things. When I first started painting middle-aged women, I would try to avoid anything sexual, not even showing a breast under the clothes. [5]

Although separating middle-aged women from anything sexual can be interpreted as problematic, I believe that there might be several reasons why Currin might operate in this manner. For one, he compels the viewer to engage with these paintings and to question what it is that makes them so unusual. Secondly, he states that overtly representing women of this age as either sexual or asexual would prompt accusations of his being sexist [6]. When Currin was painting his series of middle-aged women he had the idea while he was painting them “… that they were divorced” [7]. It is my argument that Currin is looking at contemporary society and commenting on the trend of middle-aged men separating from their middle-aged wives in order to pursue younger women. The portrait of the skinny woman seems to be a merging of the two sides of this issue. The painting portrays the middle-aged woman with grey hair and wrinkles, and as extremely thin. She could possibly be described as model thin or anorexic. This is an important painting to analyze when discussing how cultural relativism plays a role in the art of John Currin. The thin woman appears as an assemblage of youthful attributes in conjunction with the more aged attributes of a middle-aged woman. Although these women are divorced, they remain dignified and better yet, they appear to be happy, noble, and proud. That Currin’s representations of these women are often considered to be sexist is indicative of the prevalence of ageism within our society. By our cultural standards, these women have no more sexual value; they are no longer interested in sex, but are “… only interested in culture, like museum patrons. That’s why [Currin] gave them such short haircuts…” [8]. Currin makes use of the culturally dominant prejudices and beliefs about middle-aged women as people who have completely abandoned their sexuality to his advantage to create paintings that are striking and also quite controversial. Currin responds to this social view by employing culturally constructed signifiers of gender to make his portraits of middle-aged women lack sexuality. Since long hair is a signifier of femininity, the artist gives his subjects short hair.

Currin’s more recent works differ from his paintings of middle-aged women. He recently decided that he would make paintings where “… the sex is so up-front that it would be neutralized” [9]. The sexuality of the woman’s body is so exaggerated that it is no longer attractive. By doing this, Currin is commenting on the plethora of cosmetic surgeries that change or “enhance” the woman’s body so that she can be perceived as an attractive and successful woman. The paintings that epitomize this style are The Bra Shop (1997), Dogwood (1997) and The Farm (1997), the viewer’s eyes being immediately drawn to the woman’s breasts, regardless of the viewer’s sexual orientation. What Currin is asking, with his big breast series, is “at what point are breasts too large?” In addition to this, Currin is sarcastically offering the heterosexual male viewer what is supposed he wants—only an exaggerated form of it. These women, unlike the middle-aged women previously portrayed, all have long hair. The blonde hair that many of these women wear does not allude to any sense of individuality. Their hair seems to come from women’s magazine covers that promise the latest styles, crazes and ways to keep a man. In The Bra Shop, there are two women standing in front of an orange backdrop. Both women have large eyes, important to note when examining the construction of beauty. Large eyes are traits that, as adults, we find beautiful in babies. Large eyes in adults are also signifiers of youth and beauty [10]. In the painting, one woman is being measured for a bra by another large-breasted woman. Currin uses different types of paint application to juxtapose natural against artificial. The bodies of the women are rendered using thick brush strokes, while a palette knife is used for the face. Currin suggests that the faces are rendered in a very sloppy manner to give the women the appearance of being in “… a panic-ridden situation where the more you try to make it better, the more you damage the face,” also referring to the belief that women can never truly be themselves in public, that they are never pretty enough to go shopping at a bra shop, to sit in a park or tend to the farm without having to decorate their faces [11]. For all of their effort, which includes cosmetic surgery and coats of make-up, the women in Currin’s paintings are not as beautiful as they had hoped to become. Rather, they appear artificial and vain. With paintings such as these, Currin is making his belief in a cultural relativist conception of beauty evident while rejecting an ideal beauty, such as the type described by Charles Baudelaire, who suggested that beauty is composed of two elements:

Beauty is made up of an eternal, invariable element, whose quantity it is excessively difficult to determine, and of a relative, circumstantial element, which will be, if you like, whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions. Without this second element, which might be described as the amusing, enticing, appetizing icing on the divine cake, the first element would be beyond our powers of digestion or appreciation, neither adapted nor suitable to human nature. [12]

Baudelaire believed that while there is an eternal element to beauty, a standard that never changes, he adds to this the relative element, which he equates with the morals and fashions of a particular era. Cultural Relativists would disagree with this assessment of beauty, based on Baudelaire’s assumption that there is an eternal aspect to beauty.

An examination of gender roles and socially acceptable behavior that corresponds to gender is important when considering Currin’s oeuvre in relation to Cultural Relativism and feminist analysis. With Homemade Pasta (1999), Currin depicts a homosexual male couple in a kitchen making homemade pasta, focusing on the personalities of the couple and the affection between them. Unlike his paintings of women, he does not exaggerate proportions to the extreme. He simply captures a private moment between two men cooking in their kitchen. Another striking painting of a gay couple is Two Guys (2002), in which Currin depicts a couple tenderly touching. The aesthetic of this painting is reminiscent of commercial photography portraiture. Although these paintings are not highly sexualized, they still have the power to shock. If they were of two women, they would probably not be considered outrageous. In an interview with Rochelle Steiner, Currin contends that

… it’s a provocation to paint an image of gay men in my style … WithHomemade Pasta I just wanted an image of totally unsexualized domestic life. And then I kept thinking that this image of a gay couple is also political. It’s interesting to me that people feel automatically guilty, kind of uncomfortable, when looking at that painting. An image of two men has a strange authority, an ability to make liberal people cringe and get nervous about what they’re going to say. This is the same way that images of black people make people nervous. [13]

With his Homemade Pasta painting, Currin is attempting to illuminate the private lives of people who do not usually grace canvases. Adding to this unusual depiction of men is the fact that these men are wearing aprons and cooking, a task that is commonly considered to be feminine. However, these men seem to being having a good time. It is also unusual in that the men are quite close to each other. The construction of gender codes and socially acceptable behaviour for men and women becomes quite evident when looking at this painting of two men simply cooking in comparison to his paintings of women such as The Pink Tree (1999) and Dogwood, which depict women who are in physical contact with each other. The painting of the two men cooking is not overt, yet it is nevertheless clear that they are gay. This is due to the fact that it would be considered awkward for two straight men to be standing close to one another and preparing dinner.

Conversely, The Pink Tree depicts two naked women whose proportions are exaggerated. In addition to this, one of the women is touching the side of the other woman, who is touching the leg of the other. This painting is much more sexually charged, yet these women are not perceived as being a lesbian couple. It is the same situation with Dogwood, the main exception being that these women are clothed. Currin is making use of pre-existing stereotypes about homosexual men and offering them back to the public by using notions of the public and the private, the former being dominated by men—the latter, by women. He places his gay couple within a room that is clearly associated with femininity—the kitchen.

John Currin’s paintings emphasize a postmodern approach to the culturally relative nature of beauty and gender. His paintings of large-breasted women are somewhat antagonistic and sarcastic. At first glance, he seems to be offering male viewers what they want, yet at the same time, his exaggerated women parody contemporary Western culture, where women are encouraged to develop impossible standards of beauty. Currin’s provocative portraits of homosexual men are testament to a rejection of stereotypical gender roles. The social construction of gender is similar to that of beauty. There is no absolute or objective definition of gender for a man or woman.

Bates, Brian, and John Cleese. The Human Face. London: BBC Worldwide, 2001.
Baudelaire, Charles. “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London: Phaidon Inc. Ltd.,1964.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972.
Currin, John. John Currin Selects. Chicago: MFA Publications, 2003.
Gingeras, Alison M. “The Backdoor Man.” Flash Art, October 2002: 70-73.
Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
Steiner, Rochelle. “Interview with John Currin” John Currin. New York: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Serpentine Gallery, 2003.

1. John Currin, John Currin Selects (Chicago: MFA Publications, 2003), p. 24.
2. James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), p. 18.
3. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books, 1972), p. 46.
4. Rochelle Steiner, “Interview with John Currin” John Currin (New York: Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Serpentine Gallery, 2003), p. 84.
5. Ibid., p. 78.
6. Ibid., p. 84.
7. Alison M. Gingeras, “John Currin: The Backdoor Man,” Flash Art (October 2002), p. 73.
8. Ibid., p. 73.
9. Ibid., p. 70.
10. Brian Bates with John Cleese, The Human Face (London: BBC Worldwide, 2001), p. 74.
11. Gingeras, p. 70.
12. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London: Phaidon Inc. Ltd, 1964), p. 3.
13. Steiner, p. 84.