John Currin's "Thanksgiving"

study for Thanksgiving (2003)
As I googled around doing research for my recent post on Lisa Yuskavage's treatment of fruit, I ran into a few of her kindred spirits, the most kindred of which, I think, must be John Currin. The work of both artists manages to simultaneously titillate and repel, creating an overall effect of—well, let's call it masterbatory hopelessness. Or maybe horny dread. Where the two overlap most clearly is in their depictions of nudes (which constitute most of Yuskavage's work, and much Currin's), especially, I think, in the strangely synthetic skin of their subjects; all that epidermis, often barbie pink and bursting with collagen, on such pornographic display ultimately functions as a kind of full-body mask concealing the mess beneath. Both painters specialize in bizarre anatomies—not just the enormous T's and A's, but also the loose-boned architecture beneath those things. Something is off. You see it in the nudes' joints, in the angles of their necks—suggestions of a secret and disturbing disarray just under the surface.
bizarre anatomy example 1,
Pink Tree, by John Currin
bizarre anatomy example 2,
by Lisa Yuskavage

I suppose all of this rosy-nippled mayham is to Yuskavage and Currin's credit, but it doesn't make for pleasant viewing, and in any case it's often way too much work (for this viewer at least) to wade through the artists' in-your-face bravado and pc-bucking showiness to find the more authentically interesting elements of their work. Here, however, is one Currin painting that I could look at (and have) again and again, it's so rich with humor and history, so thick with time, as if that mystery had somehow clotted on this canvas (the three figures are all versions of Currin's wife, at different stages of her life). It's perversity is of a far more delicate strain than the usual Currin fare, and this, I think, allows its uncanny beauty to really sing.

Thanksgiving (2003)

and then... there's the turkey... What are we to make of that beast?

Like the Renaissance convention of the as-if-illuminated-from-within figures arranged in a cascading pyramid against a darker ground, the turkey, grapes, fading roses, and slightly over-the-hill onion point directly to another tradition—the primarily Dutch still life paintings known as vanitas (some posts on three such paintings can be found here, here, and here). As a vanitas, then, Currin is calling attention to life and death, and to the way the latter always, eventually, trumps the former. But, this being John Currin, there's a third metaphorical element at play as well and that, of course, is sex. Note, for instance, the small dark grape (and its position) held by the oldest figure* wearing that ratty old sweatshirt (which, in my view, kind of makes this painting—the sweatshirt, I mean; think how sterile, how laminated, everything would be without it... but with it, a mood of human tenderness pervades the scene, a homely, awkward, quietly sweet familiarity).

Certainly the sexual innuendos of the middle figure's open mouth and the position of the phallic baguette end (or yam??) that she holds in one elegant, elongated hand (a la Cranach) pale in the face of this turkey. Whatever pornographic impulses inform this scene are concentrated in that bird's ripe to bursting flesh, its rippling muscles and flirtatiously pink wing tips. This isn't food, it's a body. A fourth personality—the calmest, most centered one in the painting. Dead? Yes. But also curiously liberated. Carefree might be the word.

* remind you of anything?

John Currin with wife/muse Rachel Feinstein


  1. My comment is more of a question. It seems like art of this type is partly about questioning or "probing" the idea of universal meaning of images. The images are so laden with cultural overlay yet they go "beyond" or "through" the cultural meaning by virtue of being transgressive. Skipping the question of whether or not the transgressive qualities are trans-cultural, my question is, what does FCI think (as an expert on the culural meanings given to food) about whether or not food itself, while obviously a universal fact of life, carries universal meanings, in the most genearl sense? Clearly there are endless culturallly-specific meanings attached to specific foods in all cultures, and these are expressed in art all the time -- but are there any universal meanings that are true across all culures when it comes to something as basic as food? And are those meanings what you are getting at in your comments on Currin's art? Maybe food, because it is as essential as the body, but because it stands outside or independent of the social aspect of life in a way the the body cannot...maybe there are more readily accessible universals to be found in food?

  2. whoa. I need more caffeine before I can tackle (or understand) that...