Entertaining Mr. Acker Bilk (1995), John Currin
Just back from a business one-nighter in NYC. Hungry to see new work, I made a whirlwind tour of Chelsea on Thursday. Let’s just say that it isn’t always healthy for the malnourished to visit an all-you-can-eat buffet. I’m sure plenty of good work crossed my eyes, but I remember little. On Friday I headed for the more serene Madison Avenue galleries. Low ceilings, carpet…my taste buds started coming back. At Gagosian I saw a preview of John Currin’s new show. I’ve always been a fan of Currin. But ever since he became a household name I started second-guessing myself.
[Note: Household name is not hyperbole. Only a couple of weeks ago I saw Currin referenced in the Bridget Jones sequel. In the movie Hugh Grant plays a television reporter who says of Currin: “lf you want something smooth on your wall, you could do worse than John Currin. He is about the only contemporary painter who can paint. There’s usually something interesting and allegorical, plus of course, there is a very high perv quotient.”]
I guess it is Currin’s ‘perv quotient’ that I started second-guessing. Is Currin just a high-end Playboy cartoonist like Eldon Dedini?
After seeing the new show, the answer is no. Not only is he an outrageously talented painter, there is genuine affection in the work. While there is still no shortage of humor (and ‘perv quotient’), the work is far from being a one-liner.
After the Currin show I saw Lucien Freud’s new paintings at Aquavella. While I tried to experience the work on its own terms, I kept wondering what Freud thinks of Currin. My assumption would be that Freud, the ‘serious’ painter, would deem Currin too clever. But now I’m not sure. In the Aquavella show Freud included a humorous and Currin-esqe painting called The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer.
Along with the paintings, Aquavella displayed a handful of photographs by Freud’s assistant, David Dawson from the book Freud At Work.
The book includes a long interview with Freud by Sebastian Smee in which Frued discusses the issue of humor in painting. In this quote, Freud almost sounds like he is speaking of Currin:
“I’ve thought, looking at paintings that I like, that they’ve nearly always got a joke in them, of sorts. With Ingres, for instance, it’s in nearly everything. That feeling of ‘Is this serious?’ It’s to do with extreme things, to do with his attitude to women, the richness of people. You can’t help thinking, ‘This isn’t quite…’ You know? But it’s not a literary thing – it’s absolutely visual.”