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Examining Idealism: How John Currin is Redefining the Monumental Nude

Words by Michelle Pirone

JOHN CURRIN, Mantis, 2021, detail, Oil on canvas, 74 x 39 in 188 x 99.1 cm, © John Currin, Photo: Rob McKeever, Courtesy Gagosian

Memorial is on view through October 30, 2021
At Gagosian, 541 West 24th Street, New York

Exaggerated figures, solemn expressions, and deathly palettes – John Currin’s Memorial series,  puts forth a provocative dichotomy in a truly mannerist fashion. Created with oil on canvas,  Currin’s work is a conversation on ideals: what makes great art? 

At first glance, the disarmingly delicate and seemingly classical beauty of his work draws you in for more, only to send you back a safe distance from the unexpectedly erotic content. Voluptuous women bent in vulgar positions, subdued by a muted palette, Currin’s work presents us with a confusing ideal on the modern woman. One only made more curious by the use of his own wife’s face for reference. Pornographic yet demure, isn’t this the unattainable dynamic we face daily in achieving in a society that obsesses over sex but prizes modesty? An illogical notion, as absurd as the figures presented in Currin’s work.  

It is of no surprise Currin’s paintings reimagine the monumental nude figure of a treasured era.  Representing the ideal human, monumental nude sculptures of masters such as Michelangelo emphasized both intellectual and physical perfection. In employing references to classical techniques such as monumental nudes and trompe l’oeil (his paintings literally stepping out of their frames) Currin toys with the notion of greatness embedded in creating classical art, and the ideologies around what makes it impenetrable. Expertly executed with technique yet boorish in nature, he pairs the high with the lowbrow in an examination of idealism and its absurdity.  

Memorial, while seemingly outrageous, is in reality a complex conversation about worth.  Slightly awkward, yet entirely intriguing, this exhibition is one truly worth seeing. Running through the end of October, if you would like to experience the conundrum that is the work of  John Currin in person, plan your next visit to the Gagosian now.