Alec Soth's Archived Blog

November 11, 2006

The perv humor of Currin & Freud

Filed under: aesthetics,artists — alecsothblog @ 2:21 am

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.”

  • Ten people respond to The Painter Surprised by a Naked Admirer here
  • Freud’s assistant, David Dawson, talks about Life with Lucien here
  • More ‘perv’ humor by Lisa Yuskavage on view here
  • More on Playboy cartoonist Eldon Dedini here

November 2, 2006

Papageorge quote

Filed under: aesthetics,Papageorge,quotes — alecsothblog @ 2:16 pm
Whether or not Tod Papageorge is an underrated photographer, there is no doubting that he is an articulate one. This quote from the Bomb interview seems relevant to the discussion that has emerged from the After Arbus article:

I think now that, in general—and this includes a lot of what I see in Chelsea even more than what I see from students at Yale—there’s a failure to understand how much richer in surprise and creative possibility the world is for photographers in comparison to their imagination. This is an understanding that an earlier generation of students, and photographers, accepted as a first principle. Now ideas are paramount, and the computer and Photoshop are seen as the engines to stage and digitally coax those ideas into a physical form—typically a very large form. This process is synthetic, and the results, for me, are often emotionally synthetic too. Sure, things have to change, but photography-as-illustration, even sublime illustration, seems to me an uninteresting direction for the medium to be tracking now, particularly at such a difficult time in the general American culture.

October 17, 2006

Nothing is boring

Filed under: aesthetics — alecsothblog @ 12:12 pm

When I was in school I was open to everything. I painted like Rauschenberg, read Ashbery, listened to John Zorn. The world seemed so open. But it closed up quickly upon graduation. After a long day at a dead end job, Seinfeld looked a lot more appealing than the avant-garde. So I settled down and married a medium (photography) and got on with my life.

I have no regrets. But I’m now reaching that point where hair is starting to grow out my ears. I’m getting crusty. So I’m grateful that Kurt Easterwood splashed some water in my face today on his blog. Easterwood makes me want to go back to school. His insightful comments even got me thinking about John Cage again (haven’t thought about him in years):

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” — John Cage.

Kurt, if you are ever in Minnesota, let’s go the movies….

September 22, 2006

Surviving refinement

Filed under: aesthetics,artists — alecsothblog @ 12:13 am

In my post on Vik Muniz vs. Gabriel Orozco, Kathleen writes of Orozco: “For me, his photos are just….bad. They are sketches to a larger, more cohesive idea. (One where the end product is not a poorly shot/printed c-print).”

In response, Alexandre writes: “Do we still need “good” pictures? It’s true that shots/prints of Orozco are poor, as poor as his sculptures in fact…What makes Orozco a genius is his incredible sense of the uncanny, the bizarre, the poetic poverty.”

This got me thinking about lo-fi aesthetics. William Wegman (who reminds me of Muniz) began his career by producing raw and hysterical videos.


Over time he rifined his technical skills:


His work grew up but lost some of its charm. But what was he to do? I suppose he had the option of recreating the lo-fi look by continuing to produce faux-naïve videos forever. But that seems equally unsatisfying. How do you build a career on the armature of aesthetic rawness? There has to be something else at the root of the work. There has to be a subject with depth. The problem with Wegman is that this subject is, well, dogs. The roots don’t go deep enough to survive the transition from raw to refined.

One example of someone who has survived this transition is Annie Leibovitz. Her primary subject, celebrity, isn’t much deeper than dogs. But Leibovitz has often been able to sink in her teeth and pull out some great pictures. One of her best sub-genres has been American music. Here is a raw and outrageous picture of Keith Moon in 1976:


During the eighties, Leiovitz took on lighting, props, color and a bigger negative. The pictures lost their edge and became all about artifice:


But Leibovitz worked through this. Since the nineties she has been producing incredibly refined images that nonetheless have a genuine soulfulness. Here is an image of Brian Willson in 2000 from her book American Music:


In some ways Leibovitz’s work resembles that of the musicans she’s photographed. Look at the recent revival of Bob Dylan. Sure, he did a Victoria Secret ad a couple of years ago. But he’s also mastered his craft, battled the storms and come out the other end with something both refined and rich.

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