January 25, 2013 Repository 47: A Painting Dissected – John Currin and The Dogwood Thieves Posted In: art practice, contemporary art


Image John Currin, Dogwood Thieves, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

While we are mostly subjected to completed works by artists, it is quite something else to consider the very real and tiresome steps to which an artist arrives at the end of a painting for example. Some of the incredible shifts that go on in many studio practices would give you whiplash. Be thankful you are only left to decode, summon and question the “finished” pieces on gallery/museum/web walls.

John Currin bravely reveals the evolution of one particularly dicey painting process in a recent book I picked up called John Currin: The Dogwood Theives (bought at my new favorite gallery/bookstore in PDX Ampersand). The book was published by the Acadia Summer Arts Program – an exclusive, invitation only program in Maine. It was a lecture he gave there, and they in turn created the book.

Instead of an ode to a beautiful painting, this is purely an airing out of one hangnail of a painting for this artist.

The book is simply a group of pictures, 78 to be exact, that show the start of the painting (the image he was painting) to the final piece titled the Dogwood Theives, which is now at the Gagosian Gallery, if not all ready purchased.

The images are paired with commentary from Currin, which includes an apologetic disclaimer for being originally inspired by what for all intensive purposes looks like a deodorant ad. The journey from start to finish is a six year journey. While he obviously does not ruminate about this painting the whole time (he’s quite prolific), he returns over and over to get the picture just right.

It’s an amazing feat of courage and confidence to repeatedly cover up, start over and redirect a painting. For this bravado I admire Currin greatly.

As for the inspiration of the work and the end product, I’ve never liked his painting. There is no heart and soul in the image, it’s simply an image. Norman Rockwell comes to mind. Norman Rockwell without the warmth of subject matter. Currin prefers icy cold porn and wealthy people as his subject matter.

The book is a vibrant pink color – I wonder if this was chosen because he likes kinky things, or if it was a nod to the embarrassment of exposing such an intimate process that painting can be.

If he were working in a more sensual way (his subject matter attempts to be sensual – NOT his technique), then I would reccommend he ends his paintings like he would a kiss – you just know when to stop. Unfortunately because it is an image he is working on, and not a feeling, he’ll need to trip on it 78 times before he feels he’s nailed it.

I hope more popular or “major” artists follow in his lead to de-mystsify the process. This demystification, and the reality of the sheer work involved with making a painting, drawing etc. brings a sigh of relief. Perhaps they could publicly expose a Salon des Refusés – all of the work their galleries would not dare show, but that for educational, or sentimental reasons remain an important part of their process.

And while we are on the topic of John Currin – he is from time to time deemed “controversial” and exploitative of women vis a vis his subject matter. To this I say bunk – he paints women naked, clothed, with all kinds of different shapes, in sexual acts etc – there is nothing terribly controversial about these things, sex happens and women have vulvas and boobs. What I think is really controversial is the fact that he paints these images that should provoke a feeling – sexual or otherwise, but because they are so clinical they feel more like an embarrassing “toilet paper on your shoe” moment than titillating.

But I think there’s not enough time to be interested in those things. And there’s so much that doesn’t depress me. There are aspects of repetition that also depress me. Seriality depresses me. Performance depresses me. Lack of narrative depresses me. All those kinds of cool things bring me down. So that was an important development for me, just realizing that you need to follow your pleasure, at least as a painter. I think any kind of artist needs to, no matter what you’re doing. -John Currin, as quoted from Interview Magazine

20130124-222756.jpg Original photo that inspired John Currin’s painting Dogwood Thieves, courtesy of the artist.


Image John Currin, Dogwood Thieves, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian Gallery.

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