I ventured out of my artistic comfort zone this week to visit the new exhibition of John Currin paintings at Sadie Coles HQ.  Located in the part of London where you get looked down upon if you’re only driving a Rolls Royce, this is the sort of small private gallery where you have to ring a bell and then await judgment on your worthiness or otherwise for entry.    (I snuck in behind someone much cooler and much richer-looking than I.)  It goes without saying that the air of exclusivity I find so unsettling in such places is also a vital ingredient in the seduction of those with the heavier wallets and shiner credit cards.

Currin’s work has intrigued me since I came across it in Matt Collings’s This is Modern Art some years ago.  His eerie juxtaposition of fleshy, painterly nudes and their grotesque, disproportionate bodies were greater than the sum of their parts, at least in their capacity to remain memorable long after viewing.  From interviews, Currin doesn’t necessarily come across as much of a thinker, so I suspect that the spotlight he shone on media misogynism and female body dysmorphia may have been unintentional (he just likes breasts), but it’s there all the same.  Having not seen his work in the flesh before, the new exhibition certainly sounded worth a visit. 

(Note: don’t click to read more if you’re likely to be easily offended…)

The ‘progression’ in Currin’s recent work is immediately obvious: from tackling the nude to portraying pornography.  Of the dozen or so new works on display, there’s a 50\50 divide between the explicitly pornographic (i.e. depicting penetration) and those which merely hint at something sleazier taking place just out of shot.  The latter group consists mainly of female portraits, but also includes a crockery still life surely included as a joke.  The teacups are certainly so badly painted that I’d be too afraid of knocking my teeth out to use them.

The meat of the work lies in confronting low-brow lust lifted from mass media and painstakingly downloaded in oils.  There’s certainly a small frisson of tension in recognising the texture of the canvas seeping through an image that would more typically be depicted in Ben Day dots or – as is now more likely of course – a primordial swamp of pixels.


As a single trick though, that tension wears off pretty quickly.  Hosted in the Royal Academy instead, well, that would have been something (not least alongside Cranach).  But behind frosted glass for a self-selecting audience of permissive liberals\art fashionistas?  Well, so what? 

That’s not to say the works aren’t well executed – for the most part they are, although I would say most only look 90% complete.  And there’s certainly a market for them – I have little doubt they’ll sell like hot cakes.  It’s just that for all the affected incongruity of gold chains, blue mammarial veins and thick Jamie Oliver tongues, what have I learnt?  Yes, pornography seems as valid an artistic concern as any other in our age; maybe even more so given the unique influence the internet has had on an age old form and function.  But if you were after a thought-provoking exploration of the subject, then I just hope you didn’t miss the Barbican’s Seduced when it was around.

These works are set in an unidentifiable (and insignificant) era of bad fashion, be it the 1970s, early ’90s or the late 2020s, and the strange air of almost-nostalgia that imparts leads to a telling realisation.  This has all been done before – with both sharper bite and warmer humanity – in the film Boogie NightsUltimately, I guess an artist has to make a living too and this batch of works will no doubt keep some bread on the Currin family table.  But when even the artist himself seems to lose interest in his work away from the, ahem, action areas, you’re simply left wondering: so, what’s the point?