a blog with cultural bulimia.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

ART: John Currin

''The painting, a satiric riff on rituals both American and art-historical, at first looks like something painted by a 16th-century Flemish mannerist with a fondness for fair-skinned damsels and exaggeratedly long necks.

But then you realize that the picture is a comedy of American manners. It depicts three women gathered around a Thanksgiving table, one of them lovingly raising a spoon toward the gaping mouth of the woman in the middle. Despite the tender maternal gesture, dinner is likely to be most unsatisfying -- the massive turkey on the table remains uncooked and makes for the most horrific object, its rubbery, slightly bluish skin resting in a pool of runny blood. (Departing from his usual practices, Currin drew this scene from life, enlisting his wife as a model and purchasing a 25-pound turkey that ''smelled terrible after three days in my studio,'' he recalled.) It is certainly the most convincing turkey to appear in art since Norman Rockwell painted his ''Freedom From Want'' in 1943 and helped to establish Thanksgiving as the quintessential national holiday, celebrating neither religion nor ethnic identity but the singularly American devotion to enormous helpings of bland food.
"Currin's ''Thanksgiving'' can fairly be described as an early-21st-century masterpiece"
Currin, by contrast, brings us a Thanksgiving whose gothic excesses can make it seem more like Halloween. The roses on the table are wilting, and the glass vase holding them is half-filled with filmy water. In the lower right corner, a white dinner plate juts at an angle into the viewer's space -- you are invited to join the meal, but are offered only an empty plate.

The painting might be seen as a meditation on Yankee thrift and parsimony, which can leave people even in comfortable homes feeling deprived. Who among us doesn't wish, at times, that we were better fed and cared for? Such primal anxieties are mingled here with cultural ones: art is supposed to nourish us, but what if contemporary painting and its compulsive recycling of older styles offers nothing to feast on and in fact leaves us aesthetically starved?

Currin's ''Thanksgiving'' can fairly be described as an early-21st-century masterpiece, a word that has been so overused as to be almost meaningless. A masterpiece, by definition, is supposed to be a consummate example of some kind of skill, and there can be little doubt that this picture qualifies. It proves that virtuosity can be the source of emotionally raw art, a message that goes against the radicalism of the last century. The heroic legends of the avant-garde -- whether you take a dry conceptualist like Duchamp or a feverish expressionist like Pollock -- elevated sensibility over technical skill and unwittingly led a generation to believe that nothing could be more boring than a nicely drawn turkey."

Excerpt from Mr. Bodacious: NYTimes article on John Currin