Sheila Heti Interviews John Currin on the Fun, Beautiful Things

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I met with John Currin a couple of years ago. He was finishing up a series of paintings sourced in porn images from 1970s girly magazines. I arrived at his studio after he had finished working there all day, a huge warehouse space not far from Union Square in Manhattan. We spoke for three hours while drinking beer. He had an all-American, somewhat jock-y vibe. There was something innocent in him, too, as he spoke self-consciously about being an old man (he’s in his early fifties). He was unguarded and self-critical and was clearly at a crossroads: how should he embody his role as a “mature” or “senior” artist when his reputation and inspiration has been tied to being a shocking young artist?

John Currin was born in 1962 in Colorado. He is married to the artist Rachel Fienstein, whom he met in art school, and they have two young children. His best-known works are distorted, even Mannerist portraits of women – grotesque, often large-breasted figures with tiny waists and big, round hips, wide eyes, and flowing hair. They are fascinating, beautiful, ugly, and strange. While his painterly technique has always been admired, art critics and audiences have, at times, felt his work to be misogynistic, which he says bothers him deeply.

Currin is represented by the Gagosian Gallery. One of his most famous works, Bea Arthur Naked (1991), sold at Christie’s for nearly two-million dollars. He mentioned to me a recent photo shoot for Vanity Fair in which he posed for Annie Leibovitz. One often sees him photographed in the society pages with his wife.

When our evening ended, it was clear that Currin was disappointed, that talking about art was a great pleasure for him, and he didn’t want to stop. He reluctantly shut off the lights, hailed a cab, and dropped me off where I was staying. We continued to talk about his process in the taxi, even until the moment I shut the door. I left with the impression not of someone rehearsed and blasé, secure with his position in art history, but that of an artist still young in his enthusiasms, naive in a way, practised in others, still wanting to do great work. I felt vividly as though I had just left an art student’s studio in the middle of the night.

     MORE NUDITY

You were painting in a different way when you were quite young – more abstract, like De Kooning, not really you. And you found it difficult. Then once you figured out your thing, it became easy and joyful.

Follow your pleasure, right? Part of the trick of painting is to make everything work in unison – not just to do the thing that you’re really super-good at, then kind of hope everybody forgets the things you’re not so good at. It’s to have all those things work as, you know, seal team 6. And the weak link has to be included. You have to move at the speed of your weakest skill. You can’t let your highly-developed skills get ahead of your less-developed ones. So you paint at your lowest skill.

What’s your lowest skill?

[Thinks] I don’t have a particularly fluent drawing ability. I don’t think I have a very good decorative sense – I’m not very elegant at filling in areas, I don’t naturally make good patterns. I’m a lazy draughtsman. I don’t like to draw. There’s a kind of eating-dinner-in-front-of-the-TV feeling to it. So I try not to hide my crummy drawing. It’s a subtle thing. In some ways, I’m kind of full of shit right now because I actually changed my mind about this in 1999, 2000. I decided, you know what? Fuck it. I’m going to completely indulge the things I’m really, really good at. I started making more nudes and there was less ugliness in my work.

What happened in your life around 2000?

I got married.

So the paintings before that were much sadder or something?

Yeah, I was a sadder person. And Rachel showed me how to be a happy person – and how to project happiness in art. Everybody thinks everything has to be a big bummer, an after-school special about abortion and abuse and cutting and anorexia. But Rachel gave me the idea of making work about being happy. Of course, the harder you try to be upbeat and all-American, there’s a tragic thing headed your way. But Rachel just encouraged me to not to reject things because I liked to do them. You know, distrusting something because you fear you’re jerking off.

So the things she’s said to you over the years have really affected the directions you’ve gone in?

Oh, definitely. She’s the one who’s pushed me into not feeling guilty about putting sexual stuff in my work, not feeling guilty about showing off my gifts. She’s the one who really encouraged me to just do a few paintings where you show off. And I did it, and it was, Wow, this is fun! And easy! Painting doesn’t have to be that hard! Of course, it is hard, but not always, you know? She’s not as uptight as I am. Rachel always says to me: you’re thinking too much. Don’t think. You don’t get paid to think.

Right.

Before that, there was a kind of pressure – like very tight, tightly-bound things. I thought of myself as an expression-repressionist. Or a repressive-expressionist.

And now there’s more humor and joy and sexiness?

I think there’s just more nudity. I thought the most interesting aspect of my personality was my unhappiness – that was what people paid to see. When I was in art school, I really liked Francis Bacon, and I thought, he’s gay, he’s alcoholic, he gambles, he’s British, he hangs out with criminals. I look at myself and I’m suburban – I’m just so boring. Keep in mind, it may have had something to do with grunge, everybody falling over themselves to be like Kurt, a tortured guy. That’s stupid, that attitude, and you can see where it leads, heroin and all that stuff. Just the bummer of it – it stopped being appealing to me. I met Rachel and I wasn’t unhappy anymore. I’d lost my shtick in a way. That said, as I get older, I realize I’m a fairly depressive person.

It’s true. A lot of younger artists feel their work has to come out of their unhappiness.

Part of it is that when you’re young, generally you’re broke. You don’t know how good you have it, just being sort of effortlessly beautiful and elegant and lovely. But fine. That’s the prerogative of the young, to think they have it really terrible. The other thing about the young is – young people should be fakers and liars and try things out. I always think David Bowie is the best example of this – someone who just makes something up and decides that’s going to be it. He doesn’t have to sing about his experiences; it’s fantasy. And he uses his beauty and his youth and that makes it even more spectacular. There’s something gross about an old person doing that. You can’t use your beauty anymore. The big question for me is how you keep working as you get older.

You lose your spark?

No, you get technically good and you narcissistically want to present to yourself how good you are at things, and a kind of circularity starts to show up, in which you’re choosing things in order to showcase your – to build your own confidence. The metaphor that always sadly seems apt to me is you become a kind of jazz fusion. You start out as like a garage band, and end up as some noodle-y jam band. You do get better technically and you do get more experienced. But what gets lost is the audacity of faking it – using your charisma and beauty to carry you over the dead parts of the track.

But how does that work for a painter? Do you mean being physically present at your shows?

Oh no, I don’t mean literally. I don’t mean unblemished skin or something like that. There’s just a beauty to just being young. Your ignorance, just the charm of it. Maybe I should say charm rather than beauty. The charm of doing stupid things when you’re young, and the entertainment that other people … When you’re young and you make mistakes in public, it’s almost like a gift to everybody around you. When you’re old and you make mistakes, it’s just sad and depressing for everyone around you. You know, when I turned forty, I felt, I don’t want to piss people off anymore, I don’t want to be a bad boy anymore, I don’t want to have people mad at me anymore. I used to have this whole idea that bad reviews were healthy. I don’t feel that way anymore.

What do you feel now?

I’m very thin-skinned. I hope everybody loves me, and I’m worried everybody hates me.

So where is the path of freedom when you’re working?

I don’t know. I’m less aware of how to get there than when I was younger. If a painting’s going well, I just keep moving. I get ideas. I have enthusiasm. I want to have live models come in. I had a model yesterday and I thought, This is fun. It’s so easy. It feels like you’re cheating. Like, I’m copying, I’m doing my term paper from the encyclopedia. You’ve got the model there – if you don’t have any ideas, just do her. It’s funny. I had to do a photograph for Vanity Fair – Annie Leibovitz came and Rachel was here and we were posing as a couple, and I felt, Ah man, I’m really a sell-out. And Annie was just the nicest person you ever met. She was like, “How about Rachel poses for you and you paint?” And I’m like, “No, that’s so awful! I don’t want to do that!” I was upset and pissed off but I thought, okay. And I dragged out a nude and Rachel lay down and I started painting her, and it wasn’t going well. I thought, “Now I’m fucking up this painting just for a stupid photograph.” Then Annie sent the crew away and she just started taking pictures and I started getting interested in it, and Rachel actually fell asleep. Also, I never get to paint Rachel anymore cause her studio’s down on Canal Street, and it was kind of wonderful, and I realized, This is good! It’s getting good! The veins are popping out on her forehead cause she’s asleep and – anyway, it turned out nice. And there’s no idea behind the painting at all. 

     THERE’S NO KITCHEN

I always feel like humans are the same throughout time, so the idea that a porn magazine from the seventies – even if the photographer has no experience with art history – might set things up in the way of a religious painter …

Right, some of the source images for these porn paintings I’m doing, I find they remind me of religious paintings. I like things that have a religious, kind of formal … somebody facing you and somebody coming in from the side. It’s like an Annunciation, where the angel’s coming in from the side, and the angel seems to be from a spatially different world.

The photographers for these magazines were incredibly good. I’m not going to gross you out by showing you pictures, but they’re beautifully done. There was this magical period in the seventies where they got very good photographers. I’m a bit embarrassed to be making paintings of them because the pictures are already so good, but hopefully I’ve transformed them enough. I saw some blog where a guy managed to find the porn images I used, and he had this indignant response, like, I thought you were okay but now I’ve realized you’re a complete fraud!

I saw the Cosmo cover with the heart in the dress, which you painted.

Francesco Scavullo [the fashion photographer] took those pictures, and Wayde Bend was a very famous make-up artist and stylist. They made those great ‘70s Cosmo covers. One way to find out how fantastic they are is to just compare them to – well, everything is terrible now, but –

[Laughs] Everything is terrible now?

I’ve started feeling like a middle-aged curmudgeon. Here’s something I hate about modern life – this eating your lunch in places that don’t have a kitchen. You’ll see young, vaguely fashionable workers going to, like, Pain Quotidian. And you get plastic utensils! You can sit in a plastic chair in fluorescent lights and eat it there, but it’s not a restaurant, there’s no kitchen. And that’s kind of taken over! There are no coffee shops and there are no diners. And I totally don’t understand Starbucks. Like, the aesthetic of drinking out of a paper cup, and the crappiness of the coffee? But it seems to be the way of the future.

Because it’s fast.

Young people don’t like to sit around in coffee shops – read and kill the day. That’s something that has kind of ruined New York. And everything’s gourmet, like you can’t get a sandwich that doesn’t have something stupid on it. It’s like, we have a sauerkraut with honey mustard and then there’ll be some Middle Eastern spice thrown in for good measure. Jesus Christ! I want a ham and cheese sandwich with iceberg lettuce and mustard! I get the feeling this decade will be looked back on pretty negatively.

Which decade? Zero to ten?

Well, zero to ten had wars and September 11th. Now we’re really in the ‘70s again, with a Jimmy Carter president and a horrible economy and sort of crypto-socialist tendencies. You know how when you look at ‘70s movies and there aren’t any really beautiful women in them?

But there aren’t any women in ‘70s movies!

Yeah, it’s all men. But, take Rocky. Why is the female lead just this plain nobody? I feel like we’re in a similar situation now. Or you get totally plastic ones, these young girls who are super-beautiful, but actually who’s the one with the black hair and the blue eyes? Kind of has this bronze skin, glistening skin alwaysglistening, glossy lips?

Straight hair?

Yeah. And ferocious-looking. What’s her name? [We try different names] Megan Fox! Or Jessica Biel. These kind of real fitness-y-sports girls. Then there’s this kind of wasteland of –

Wait. What are you saying about Megan Fox? Yea or nay?

I was saying nay, I guess.

Because she’s too cold?

Because, even though she’s beautiful and sexy, there’s no real echo in her presence on screen. You know who’s good? Blonde. Sorry, I’m so bad with names. Witherspoon.

Reese Witherspoon?

She has this kind of nuttiness, and there’s an insane edge to her. She actually looks a little bit funny. I mean, she’s beautiful, but there’s an entire world in this person. You don’t see that as much in actresses now. Though if I was in my twenties, maybe I’d think, Wow! Everything is great and exciting and the world is new! But I think something happened to culture in the ‘80s. Somebody gave me a box of every Playboy from 1969 to 1985, and it was fantastic. ‘75, ‘76 was the high point of Playboy. December 1979 is still okay. Then – January 1980 – the pictures get ugly. Everybody’s hair goes short – all the women – they get muscular and thinner and more fitness-y. They’ve got those awful legwarmers and workout gear on. The pictures start to have a lot more silvers and blues. They just don’t look as good.

Do you think making images is a way of saying “I want the world to look more like this”?

Well, I used to think I wanted to make images that were abrasive and that would irritate people and things like that. But it’s more important to me now to make things that are beautiful. Maybe I’m just owning up to what I’ve always wanted. You’re supposed to be transgressive when you’re young, but I think I’m actually interested in things being beautiful and satisfying, which I guess is conservative.

Just before I came to see you, I saw Damien Hirst’s dot paintings at Gagosian.

We were going to go to the opening and then our daughter got sick so I haven’t gone up there yet.

There are two paintings that are actually mesmerizing – the dots are placed in such a way that there’s a mystery to it. But the other ones are so regular you can’t look at them for long. The guard said, “I hate being in this room. I feel like I’m in a pediatric office.”

[Big laugh] Well, Damien – I still think he’s a great artist ’cause I remember seeing his cow, a rotting cow head in this big vitrine, and flies make their way to the head, and then they get killed by the zapper. It just smelled horrible. You could smell it from a hundred feet away. And I found it totally spectacular, like a war movie or something. It had this demonic energy, like a kid who builds a train set and blows it up. And in a way the banality of it brings these huge themes down to the scale of your life in a pretty amazing way. He’s the real thing, in terms of an artist.

What makes him the real thing?

Well, he’s an example of someone figuring out what they’re interested in and then so effortlessly – without having to be smart about it, without having to be intelligent all the time, ‘cause one of the wonderful things about Damien’s work is, there’s always the feeling in your mind that, This is so stupid, I really shouldn’t be taking this seriously – but nevertheless it’s totally captivating. I mean, the pieces are so simple and so dumb, but they’re kind of doing what the classical artists do. That’s another fault with the culture right now, this idea that you have to be intellectually credentialed, or have a high IQ, or some sort of special thinking ability – philosophical ability – in order to be an artist. That’s not what art is. Art is about magic and beauty, and it helps to be smart, but it’s not a prerequisite.

     IT’S A VERY COMPLEX MIRROR

So is it a pleasure to be here doing this? Painting?

Oh yeah, it’s the most fun there is.

And things in the world – critics and all those things that come along with success – do they complicate and confuse?

Well, paintings costing a lot of money is confusing. I don’t feel like being as funny as I used to be in painting. Although the porn paintings are comical, I suppose. But the whole thing seems a lot more serious now than it did fifteen years ago. Now it’s kind of about getting lost in this reverie – this super-gaze – but that’s the kind of art I like, where you’re just burning a hole in an image.

With your eyes?

Yeah.

Is it possible to do that without painting women?

I don’t know. Maybe van Gogh doing his Cypress trees? I don’t know. Have you ever seen the Orson Welles movie, The Lady from Shanghai?

No.

Rita Hayworth’s in it – she’s got short hair, blonde hair. And she’s lying down and the camera is like herereally super close – and it’s just like, fucking hell she is so beautiful! And you want her so bad! And the guy in the movie wants her so bad! But there’s something wrong with her, she’s cold, she’s evil, and it’s basically a cartoon of what everybody hates about the gaze. I always thought that’s the best part of the movie, when you’re looking at her that way. To me, there’s nothing but gaze with paintings. That’s all there is – a possessing gaze that transforms things. The metaphor I would think of is you take this woman and you sort of love her and squeeze her so much that she turns out all mangled. Like you’ve strangled your pet kitten by accident, you know? [Laughs]

Do you feel that’s your gaze in the world?

Yeah. Sure. There’s a kind of a distortion that happens with adoration. You’re destroying this thing, smothering, holding back someone. It doesn’t have to be sexual. You sometimes feel that way with your children. It’s a hard thing to describe, but you want this all for yourself. It’s almost like you’re involved in a narcissistic love affair with yourself, with the person or the kid as a prop. For instance, my son was involved in a bad sledding accident a year ago where he hit a tree very, very badly and got a terrible laceration. And it was a totally traumatic experience for me.

The odd thing is it changed my life in some ways because for a month he looked terrible, and he’s such a beautiful boy! He looks like me, and we’re very, very close, and to see him sort of broken – he’s totally healed now; he’s got a scar but it’s, like, going to get him chicks in college – anyway, it’s like the mirror was shattered. I’d been using him as a mirror. The accident wasn’t a good thing, but some positive things came out of it. I started seeing him as a separate entity, you know what I mean? And painting is that. It’s a girl or whatever – but it’s a mirror, and you’re projecting everything onto it. It’s a very complex mirror, so complex you could never understand it, and you should never try to understand it. I guess it’s a little like God. When my son asks me about God, I always have to say that it’s a mystery. It is. There’s no philosophy that will get you there. I think the secrets and mysteries in paintings are similar. It’s cheap for me to bring up my son’s accident to illustrate that. But in a way, it was a similar, a strange feeling of being pulled out of this trance I was in, and it was a good thing to be pulled out.

You weren’t even aware that you were in a trance.

Yeah. And there a real person was involved. But with painting, it’s like you kind of need to be in the trance.

Forever.

It’s part of the wonderful aspect of painting that you live in a dream-world.

I’m trying to visualize what the rupture would be.

Bad art. [Laughs]

There was a rupture with your son, but there hasn’t been in your life as an artist.

Well, I don’t know. I worry the new paintings will be seen as sad – like dirty-old-man, fetishistic, and claustrophobic, and just not charming. Depressing. That is the shaming, feminist read of them, I suppose.

Do you think Botticelli worried he was a dirty old man?

Well, yes, actually. Botticelli flipped out. He made all those beautiful paintings, and then he flipped out. He fell under the spell of Savonarola, the guy who came to Florence and held a bonfire of the vanities, and he decided to burn all of his Venuses and start doing religious paintings in a kind of penance. It’s just architecture and bummed-out sinners after that. He got very scared about his salvation. You can mess up. Guilt is a bad thing in art.

Are you afraid for your salvation?

Yes I am. Definitely. Especially with kids. The feeling that this is frivolous … that I should be doing something heavier. I don’t know. [Sighs] Sometimes I feel like you’re wasting your life if you’re not doing the fun, beautiful things. That’s the real waste. Or you’re wasting your life if you spend all your time eating candy and having sex and playing. That’s the waste. Depending on how you look at it, you can say I’ve wasted my life on frivolity, or I’ve wasted my life on – you know, I was just looking at The Master of Flémalle, with the virgin studying the Bible in her cubicle or whatever. She’s living her life with such discipline and – boy! I’m not that way!

[Opens a book] Look at these, the beautiful shadows, and these little miracles of gold coming out from behind … Somehow it does seem like a great argument against making nudes and pagan paintings and pleasure paintings. Or maybe it’s the superior morality of realism – a kind of melding of science with an acknowledgement of God; this spectacular combination of faith and a total, rational understanding of the natural world. It’s the perfection of these two human possibilities: faith, and seeing what is around you, truly. I guess that’s one reason I’m still attracted to doing the porn things, because it is a terrible combination of pleasure and pain and nudity and shame and pleasure. [We look at his huge canvas in front of us] I just thought that big ass, to try to paint it – it would be an absolute miracle. Just to make it gigantic and … I don’t know. Just to present it as a bounteous miracle.

Totally.

I had a very troubling dream that I was in a room with grotesque people all having sex, and there was some vague feeling that my kids were witnessing it – that something obscene and terrible was happening. In the dream there’s a kind of floating. You know the bubble in Wizard of Oz? The good witch comes down in this kind of bubble? In my dream, it was a kind of hologram Virgin of Guadalupe that was floating around the room in a sort of redemption. So, rather obviously, within this kind of Dionysian hell, there’s redemption

     A FORM OF LIFE

I think some people come to your paintings and think, I shouldn’t like this, but I like it. This is grotesque, but this appeals to me.

Well, thank you. But it becomes harder as you get older. You don’t gross yourself out when you’re young. You don’t think, oh god this is so sad. And part of it is: how do you make this kind of an image in a world where there’s probably billions of pictures of naked girls made every year? Like, gol-ly! Why on earth would you want to make a handmade version of that? Well, for the same reason there’s a market for a billion of them every year. It’s just an addiction that we’re helpless in the face of.

So you judge yourself now? Because when you were young –

When you’re young you think, Ah, fuck them if they can’t take a joke.

I’ve had arguments with people who think your early paintings are sexist. I’ve never found them that way. They seem kind of humorous. Scary too, sometimes. But I never found the sexist thing to stick, exactly.

I wouldn’t deny that there’s sexism in some of my work, ’cause I’m not a perfect person. But I don’t dislike women. And there is a particularly stupid feminist idea that – I always thought the gaze thing was just complete bullshit. I find it to be stupid on a societal level and on a cultural level, and it’s stupid on a personal level. It’s like, adoration should be accepted in whatever form it comes.

But is wanting to fuck somebody adoration? You can want to have sex with somebody and have it be the opposite of adoration. It can be contempt.

I guess so. I guess pornography really is that way. In terms of men’s lust, it’s just so circular. It’s a man being involved with himself.

What’s circular?

The dehumanizing lust for women on the part of a man. I can only speak for myself, but I don’t see it as violent. The thing that’s bad about it is you’re thinking too much about yourself, not the particular women. But men are plagued with hormones that have to be acknowledged and controlled.

So you think when a man lusts for a woman, he’s thinking more of himself than the woman?

In the case of a gaze that grosses out women, yeah. It’s probably what separates a sexy man from a gross man, controlling for physical attractiveness. One guy can be just as forward as another man, but it’s the one who’s less involved with himself that gets away with it. The stuff I had in my last show was less pornographic and more pin-up-y, which weirdly offended some people more, because it’s more just a fetishistic naked-lady thing. I was way more worried about those than the earlier work, and I felt more guilty about those being stupid, and not that different from a nice pin-up in a magazine.

What is the difference?

The difference is, uh, the difference is that I painted it. I don’t know what the moral difference is, maybe there’s not much moral difference. But hopefully they’re alive in a way that a photograph of a naked girl is not alive. Paintings are like living things. They’re in the room with you. It’s not a record of the thing that happened – it’s happening right here right now. A Botticelli – it’s not an imitation of life, it’s a form of life. And it’s a form of immortality for Sandro Botticelli, as well. I think there is something terrifying about faces in paintings, compared to faces in photographs. It’s kind of a bodily thrill on almost a sexual level. Maybe that’s one reason I’m interested in Venuses and naked ladies, just the equation of the sexual excitement with the eye, and this Frankenstein-y, It’s alive!

I wonder, is there any part of you that wants to uplift people?

I don’t think about that. No, that’s not quite the truth. When I was a kid I used to have this book – Frank Frazetta, he’s an illustrator – every teenage boy in the ‘70s had it. He’s the universal style for heavy metal and violence and big-breasted women and muscular guys – sort of Dungeons and Dragons/middle-earth themes. I used to have this fantasy as I was looking through the Frank Frazetta book that some girl was looking through it, and those were my paintings, and she was saying, Wow! Wow! So I think I do have a remnant of that – that people will be overcome with the spectacle of beauty. There’s a wonderful quote from – I don’t remember – who’s the incredibly beautiful movie star, black hair, cleft chin? Not Rita Hayworth – she became an alcoholic – not Lana Turner. Anyway. Somebody asked her, “What is it like to see yourself in your movies?” And she said, “When I see myself on the big screen, I think I’m so beautiful, I want to cry.” That’s how I want to feel when I see my paintings. I want to cry. I really love that quote. That’s a real artist talking.

 

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