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Painter John Currin Comes to the West Coast

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"Old Couple," 1993, oil on canvas, 46 1/4 x 38 1/4 in (117.48 x 97.16 cm) The Broad Art Foundation. | Photo: Rob McKeever, NY.

In partnership with The Broad In anticipation of its opening, The Broad has launched "The
Un-Private Collection," a talk series featuring unexpected pairings of cultural leaders and influential artists in the Broad collections, taking place at venues around Los Angeles.

In almost every article written about John Currin, there's a sentiment that says something like this: John Currin is disputably the most successful painter of his generation. His mixture of art historical techniques with sexual or perverse subject matter helps him create masterful but modern works. In 2003, he had a mid-career survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and since then, his career has flourished even further, veering from weird, stoic portraiture to weird, grand, luxurious, fleshy scenes of decadence. (The usage of the word "weird" twice in the previous sentence isn't a redundancy -- Currin's paintings are, and always will be, weird.)

Audiences will be able to hear Currin expound on his work and Old Masters from the Getty's collection when he takes the stage with Getty CEO James Cuno at the Getty Center in a co-presentation of the Broad Museum's Un-Private Collections series and the Getty's Getty Perspectives.

Over the phone from his studio in New York, Currin discloses that he has a love affair with Los Angeles, though he hasn't shown in the city since his two shows with Regen Projects in 1996 and 1999. "I grew up in Santa Cruz, California," says the Boulder, Colorado-born artist. "My uncle lived in a weird part of L.A., so my impression of L.A.--unjust--was always that it was this sort of ugly, big city compared to Santa Cruz. It was only until I started showing that I realized what an incredible place it is, and just how beautiful it is. It's a running joke when I go there with my wife, it's like, 'Why do we live in New York City?' My impression back then was this dawning realization that maybe I picked the wrong city to live in. It seems to get better and better."

He's excited to be able to travel back to Southern California for this conversation -- he was here for a wedding last summer -- and he's slated to be part of next February's big Academy Awards show at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills (previous Gagosian Oscars shows include Julian Schnabel, Richard Prince, Urs Fischer -- the cream of the crop). But mainly, he's thrilled to finally see a museum that houses some of the finest world masterworks. "I've never been to the Getty," he confesses. "I never did. A lot of times when you go to a city to have a show, you're so busy, you don't have a chance to go to the museums. I'm really excited to see it. It's one of my favorite things in the world to see a new museum."

Currin trawled the Getty's online archives and found some of his favorite paintings--which he will discuss during the conversation. "There's a Dosso Dossi painting -- 'Mythological Scene' (c. 1524)," he says. "It's a nude woman lying down in the grass with flowers around her, and some old lady yelling about something, and some god stuck in the bushes. I saw the painting years ago in New York City, and it's a masterpiece. It's one of my favorite paintings in the world. There's also a George de La Tour called 'The Musicians' Brawl' (c. 1625 - 1630). It's a bunch of musicians beating each other with their instruments. It's just an incredible, weird, uncategorizable painting."

You can see elements of these masterpieces have inspired Currin's own work--but it's only been lately that his own work has displayed the dynamic, action scenes that these old paintings feature. Everything changed in the early-2000s for Currin. In a profile in The New Yorker in 2008, Calvin Tompkins went down the path of asking Currin about his pornographic subject matter, and he calls the "origins... complicated." It's true: asking Currin about porn in his work is to open a Pandora's box. He cites the power turning back on the week after 9/11, leaving his original gallery Andrea Rosen for his current home Gagosian Gallery, the arrival of his first child and the subsequent loss of what he calls his "Libertine life," and the Whitney show all as major life changes that led him to stumble upon the Internet for inspiration.

John Currin, "Hot Pants," 2010, oil on canvas, 78  x 60 in. (198.12  x 152.4 cm) The Broad Art Foundation | Photo: Rob McKeever, NY
John Currin, "Hot Pants," 2010, oil on canvas, 78 x 60 in. (198.12 x 152.4 cm) The Broad Art Foundation | Photo: Rob McKeever, NY.

But mostly, it doesn't matter, because the use of pornography seems to only serve Currin's work in other ways -- the actual sexual acts are secondary. "I have a lot of abstract considerations in my mind," he says. "In many times, it's fun to choose a particularly obtrusive subject matter in the service of an abstract goal. I've always been interested in making a painting that has a real problem at the outset -- it's going to be hard to look at as anything like a serious painting because of the subject matter. That's why there's all the nudity and all the sex and all the porn. The porn was just because I wanted to make paintings that had a different kind of structure. I was envious of [17th century French painter Nicolas] Poussin having a bunch of nudes going every which way. The only real examples of that in modern life are sports photography and porn. I suppose I could paint a swimming competition or a naked rugby match -- that's kind of a good idea -- because when you look at Poussins, they are kind of like a naked football game. That's what initially got me into using pornographic images in my paintings."

Around 2005 -- around the time of the Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy -- he started looked to Danish pornography. "I happened upon the Danish porn -- it's so nuts," he says with a laugh. "It's these elaborate sets with candelabras and old European furniture in mansions. The people having sex is an afterthought, because they're all ugly and sometimes middle-aged. It's utterly different from what we see in porn now. I thought, 'Well, I'm going to do an elegy for Libertine Europe as it Islamicizes and loses its freedom.' I thought of it as good stand-in for my conservative, paranoid idea of the socialist paradise of Europe from 1960 to 2000, and the collapse of that. When I say that, I imagine you're rolling your eyes, and I don't expect anybody to glean that from my work, but it was the mood music in my head to get me to paint those things. It was also my chance to make more European-looking, Baroque, elaborate, jammed-to-the-rafters-with-stuff paintings, which I'd always wanted to make."

Currin chuckles when I bring up another leitmotif of his work: the subjects in his paintings often seem to have an awkward toothy smile. "I remember the first time I had a smile with teeth, and I just realized you never see this in paintings," he says. "I made this small painting that had a computer in it, and it's one of those things that's not really meant to be painted. Teeth, a smiling mouth, it's always a little bit shocking in a painting. I've also been interested in it as something that takes the face to a different -- maybe mythological, god-like -- place."

Currin will discuss these themes and more during the conversation, and inevitably, the works that are owned by the Broad will come up. "They always ended up getting my favorite paintings of various shows," he says. "They bought my favorite one of my last show in Paris, called 'The Storm' (2013). It's a good collection of -- I hate to say 'major works' when I'm talking about myself -- but they're paintings that I knocked my head out on. Especially, 'Hot Pants' (2010). That practically killed me, so I'm very fond of it. I was overjoyed Eli Broad bought it."

As for his return to L.A. show at the Gagosian? "I'm hoping I can re-invoke the relaxation that ought to come with showing in L.A.," he says.

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