As this issue goes to press, it is announced that a remarkable discovery has been made in the Swabian Mountains along the Upper Danube: ancient figurative art, the product of Late Stone Age artists living 30,000 years ago, has been uncovered in a cave. Yet equally remarkable, and perhaps less reported, have been the concurrent exhumations at the site: the original exhibition catalogue and press kit; fliers on the speaking series and tour schedule; a note of thanks from the curator; a graduate student dissertation titled “The Cave as Abject Symbol in Contemporary Figurative Art” (unpublished); and a dog-eared copy of The New Yorker, found in the lavatory, from the Shawn era. Taken together, these discoveries may serve to dispel the notion that the art of the period was far more primitive than our own.

Yet even for our Paleolithic Michaelangelos, it would be unusual for such a culture to rise to the sophisticated high-water mark of the current art scene. 30,000 years hence, when scholars document the petrified edition of the December 15, 2003 New Yorker, they will be confronted by a photograph of the painter John Currin, taken by Richard Avedon. It appears alongside Peter Schjeldahl’s review of Currin’s 2003–2004 Whitney exhibition.[1] What will our descendants make of this artifact? In Avedon’s photograph, for example, the forty-one-year-old artist is pictured with a baby—one assumes, his own—clenched in his palms. The baby is held not so much in a loving embrace but rather away from Currin’s body as a sort of talismanic rattle. Mazeltov! It’s a boy! Some scholars may identify this as a real-world symbol of Currin’s hammed-up heterosexual posturing. Others may claim that this is a theatrical tableau of Currin’s post-postmodern naked ambition. Still others might say that this is simply a nice family portrait. Gosh. Can anything compare to the sedimentary layering of meaning and counter-meaning in early twenty-first-century art? Schjeldahl writes:

Currin is important philosophically for calling the bluff of postmodern theorists who reject myths of progress in art while maintaining avant-gardist postures that lean on those myths. If, after all, we are not striding a hallelujah trail to Utopia—if the past, far from being left behind, inundates the present, and high and low culture defy being separated—why not directly avail ourselves of whatever, having once pleased, may please anew?

Our descendants will only marvel.

John Currin is the cultural equivalent of a pop diva singing “Strange Fruit” while under the impression that she is, in fact, Billie Holiday. Currin is a camp artist performing a straight piece with a straight face. At mid-career and already a top seller, he matches the retardaire idea of putting paint to canvas and an ebullient appreciation for the Old Masters with a surrealist touch and a Hilton-sister sensibility. The results are flat as a pancake, soul-free, alluring to an aggressive degree: stock set-pieces of Uncle Sam gents embraced by beach-blanket belles (Lovers [1993], The Neverending Story [1994], Twenty-three Years Ago [1995]); yuppie snapshots of the upper-middle classes at play (Park City Grill [2000], Stamford After-Brunch [2000]); guppie domestic bliss (Homemade Pasta [1999], Two Guys [2002]); pug-nosed nymphettes descended from Alexandre Cabanel heaven (Girl on a Hill [1995]; SuperAngel [1995]); and a panoply of gallivanting nudes seemingly set loose from the Ecole de Fontainebleau. The results can be tempting, especially in Currin’s more culturally ambiguous images (Nude with Raised Arms [1998] and notably The Berliner [1994], the most nuanced piece of the show).

After riding the art-gallery industrial average for ten years, Currin is now enjoying his first big American museum exhibition. Currin may be able to paint a send-up of Andrea Mantegna’s Dead Christ suitable for the nose-cone of a B-17 (Nude on a Table [2001]), but is he really following in the tradition of the masters? As this artist has emerged from the critical backwater of glossy magazine spreads to claim his crown as a post-PC chic painter, some critics have championed this line of reasoning. But is it true? For all the Cosmo faces grafted onto baroque nudes, Currin’s saccharine canvases rarely rise above the sense of a pop-tune breaking into the top-forty: high production value and a catchy hook wedded to a nice ass. For something to be invested in Currin’s artistic milieu something from it would have to emerge, and Currin’s creative alchemy—devoid of ideas beyond profit and visual appeal—seems to inspire little in return. Artists like Alex Katz, Elizabeth Peyton, and William Bailey (Currin’s influential teacher at Yale) have already set forth more lasting examples. Currin may represent a flush of nascent discontent over the stranglehold of the political and the pious in art (“I want to have a Barney-free day,” he recently told a reporter). Yet, like his contemporary Lisa Yuskavage, Currin appears to lack the motivation as well as the ability to apply his talents beyond a narrow, cautious scope. Just to dispel any doubt, he regularly undercuts his own foppish skills with immature diction and a dim line of reasoning:

You go to Greece today and think, are these the people who made this stuff? Then you realize, no, they aren’t the people who made this stuff.

You don’t think of Jesus’s penis or his musculature as a particularly important aspect of Christianity… . I think [Jasper] Johns’s brushstrokes are a bit like gay images of Jesus by Mannerist painters… . When Johns makes a flaccid AbEx painting, it allows him to make a big boner of a Johns painting. So I realized that high culture in the form of masterpieces is kind of my vice. Not in the sense that I make them, but I am enthusiastic about them. I remember once when I visited an art school and this snotty, hotshot kid said, “Oh, you believe in masterpieces, don’t you?” And he was making this kind of run-of-the-mill German-looking painting, and I thought, “Of course I believe in masterpieces, you fool!” Believing in a masterpiece means believing in a totally transcendent kind of heroic performance. This sort of talk may ring true over pints at the grad bar, but such art-theory chatter does not stand up in the cold light of day. Just as The New York Times Magazine of December 14 adjudicated on an “instantly passé trend,” the backlash against Currin is metered out measure for measure with the hype. “The formerly linear lifespan of a trend, from hot to not, now resembles something closer to a Mobius strip,” wrote Adam Sternbergh. So it is written in the Book of Camp for John Currin.

Across town—that is, across the river—at MOMA QNS, an exhibition from the Department of Prints and Books, stealing some of the limelight from the mighty Department of Painting and Sculpture, has opened with an ambitious exhibition of another art superstar, eight years Currin’s senior. Kiki Smith, the yin to Currin’s yang, appears counterposed in many respects to her younger contemporary, yet how these bright young things shine with similar light.[2] Whereas Currin is a camp painter working with straight material, Smith is a supercilious artist who takes camp images and irons them flat. Both fall back on exaggerated sexual identity; the vagina is never far from Smith’s stock of images (for example, one footnote in Wendy Weitman’s catalogue reads: “Smith sees a formal resemblance between the vagina and the eye of a peacock feather.”)

The rest of Smith’s witchy performance—her nest of hair, a gothic wardrobe, Irish-Catholic diabolism, artistic collectivism, an interest in creepy animals and birds—derives not from ancient cults or even Huysmans and Poe but from a matrix of B-movies, just as Currin once drew on the camp über-idol Bea Arthur for an early portrait (he also, according to a footnote, once lent Kiki Smith a stuffed fawn). Most of Smith’s oeuvre can be deduced, for instance, from a single showing of Mario Bava’s cult classic Black Sunday (1960), where the witch Asa, played by Barbara Steele, is accidentally resurrected in her tomb by a drop of blood and proceeds to terrorize the Victorian descendants of her executioners, including the virginal Katia (also played by Steele). Smith’s work almost always fits into this scenario.

How does such an interest translate into “prints, books, and things”? One example is Untitled (Book of Hours) (1986/2003), a stack of 365 pages of “handmade Twinrocker paper” rubber-stamped in gothic lettering with words like “urine,” “tears,” “pus,” “blood”—all stock ingredients of the witch’s proverbial brew. Constellations (1996), a “lithograph on six attached sheets of handmade Nepalese paper, three with flocking,” depicts the pock-marked, craggy face of the artist as though arisen from a sepulchral slumber. One also finds serial drawings of werewolves, owls, owl pellets, dead birds, frogs, bats, small road-kill, the moon, butterflies (with more vaginas), multiple self-images, hair, lactating breasts, and so forth, with titles like (to pick the first ten alphabetically): All Souls (1988), Anatomical Head (2000), Anemone from A Bestiary (1990), Banshee Pearls (1991), Bat from A Bestiary (1990), Bestiary, A (1990), Bird (1999), Bird and Egg (1996), Bird Skeleton (2000), and Black Flag (1989).

When draftsmanship enters in, even the most basic images are rendered with appalling crudeness (which is perhaps one reason she is attracted to mechanical reproduction). But to expect otherwise would be presumptuous. It is her campy self-image, her ostentatious use of gender, her family background (she is the daughter of the minimalist sculptor Tony Smith), and not her underwhelming output that keeps Kiki Smith popular with the art establishment. Her work remains hermetically sealed off from the possibility of direct visual experience.

If there is a silver lining in Currin’s example, it is that an interest in visual enjoyment, no matter how imperfect, may be returning to art. Compared to our Stone-age forebears, we’ve come a long way, baby, but not always in the right direction.

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  1. “John Currin” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, on November 20, 2003, and remains on view through February 22, 2004. The exhibition was previously on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (May 3–August 24, 2003) and the Serpentine Gallery, London (September 9–November 2, 2003). A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Serpentine Gallery in association with Harry N. Abrams (120 pages, $35). Go back to the text.
  2. “Kiki Smith: Prints, Books, and Things” opened at the Museum of Modern Art, Queens, on December 5 and remains on view through March 8, 2004. A catalogue of the exhibition has been published by The Museum of Modern Art (150 pages, $45). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 5, on page 44
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