John Currin

Honeymoon Nude


Not on display

John Currin born 1962
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1168 × 914 × 33 mm
Purchased with assistance from Evelyn, Lady Downshire's Trust Fund 1999


A painter based in New York, Currin was first known for his 1989-90 series of pseudo-portraits of young women (head and shoulders) painted in a deadpan manner. Taken from photographs in high school yearbooks, they were characterised by their bland prettiness and seemingly untroubled sweetness. Their blank gaze and the overall emptiness of the image reproduces a terrifying moment of stillness compared by the artist to the deadly cold stare of Damien, protagonist of the film The Omen (1976, director Richard Donner). Subsequent paintings depict caricatured men and women whose over-large eyes, ruddy cheeks and sentimental expressions suggest the world of the cartoon. Women with balloon-like breasts and slender bearded men act out the traditional fantasies of the white American male as expressed in the kitsch culture of pornography, advertising and magazine photographs. The excessive sickliness of these images contrasts with the emptiness of the personalities portrayed, producing a psychologically unsettling effect. More recently Currin has turned to the mood and atmosphere of Flemish and Italian Renaissance paintings as the vehicle for his exploration of the foundation of cultural clichés and the desires behind them.

Honeymoon Nude belongs to this latter phase. An art-historical hybrid with her classical body, Botticelli hands and twentieth century face - wide-eyed and open-mouthed in the manner of a pornographer's accomplice - she represents an image of heterosexual male desire, a gorgeous female object to be appropriated and possessed. That she is no more than an image has been made clear by the inadequate wisps of hair on the top of her head - floating against the black ground they belie the seeming realistic solidity of her face and body. Most of Currin's women are blonde; most resemble him, and this is no exception. For Currin the act of painting is a means of claiming ownership for what he creates, dependent on embracing his desire as 'something good'. To portray his desire as partly an extension (or possible mirror) of himself - particularly through the most personal and expressive part of a person, the face - could be seen as a means of taking responsibility for the narcissistic aspects of desire. Rather than differentiating the object of his desire as separate and other, through resemblance Currin infers that he and his object are one and the same. Thus he produces a form of self-portrait.

The subject of a painting is always the author, the artist. You can only make an

illusion that it's about something other than that. I think that's what the function

of representation is: to give a painting the illusion of a subject … I would rather

that my work turn into a cliché than be a kind of artfully dodged, ironic critique.

I'd rather that my work be truly a cliché than a critique of clichés. Ultimately, I

think that what I do is find a cliché and try to believe in it, try to get to where I

don't laugh at it.

(Quoted in Seward, p.79.)

Further reading:
Carnegie International 1999/2000, exhibition catalogue, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh 1999
Keith Seward, 'John Currin: the Wierdest of the Weird (with interview)', Flash Art, no.185, Nov.-Dec. 1995, pp.78-80
Wild Walls, exhibition catalogue, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam 1995, unpaginated

Elizabeth Manchester
July 2000

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Display caption

‘What I do’, Currin has said, ‘is to find a cliché and try to believe in it’. His work rejects the decorous conventions of the female nude by melding art-historical references with the fantasies of advertising and pornography. The woman’s body and pose in Honeymoon Nude recall Renaissance prototypes (especially Botticelli’s Birth of Venus) but she has a recognisably contemporary face. Currin presents the female nude as a commodity, the embodiment of male fantasy. As if emphasising the narcissistic aspects of desire, he bases the woman’s face on his own self-portrait.

Gallery label, July 2005

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