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John Currin: The filth and the fury

His portraits of balloon-breasted women are notorious. Now John Currin is about to arrive in Britain with canvases of an even more sexually explicit nature. The artist talks to David Usborne about flesh tones, critical outrage – and why hardcore porn is part of the 'war against Islam'

Sunday 16 March 2008 01:00 GMT

John Currin is a shooting star of American figurative painting whose trajectory to fame and riches peaked gloriously five years ago with a retrospective at three major world museums. But he has some explaining to do. The 46-year-old has since controversially switched galleries, performed a curious vanishing trick and now... well, his latest flesh-on-canvas efforts would make Hugh Hefner blush.

That, of course, is the good news. The Currin canon is swelling again, with nearly a dozen new works, which – assuming he finishes them on time – will be shown for the first time next month at the Sadie Coles gallery in London's Mayfair. Fans, who are legion, are agog. So too are the art critics, not all of whom have always lavished Currin with equal praise.

Just weeks before the paintings must be shipped across the Atlantic, Currin, with greying sideburns nowadays, tolerates the interruption of a reporter with easy grace. Never mind the pressure of the impending deadline and the fact that, on this day, he considers complete only one of the nine or 10 paintings now hanging on the white walls of his studio in lower Manhattan and bound for Sadie Coles. Nor does he seem afraid of the storm of tut-tutting comment that these paintings – and his startling claim that they were inspired originally by the artist's disgust of "Islamic fascism" – will inevitably provoke.

Currin's mood today is perhaps buoyed by what he has achieved with that single finished canvas, a languid scene of boy-girl penetration with no anatomical detail spared, which quickly tells you that Currin has entered a porn phase (meaning many of his new canvases are too explicit for publication in a national newspaper). The northern light from the high windows of the studio seems suddenly to make the work glow. "This one, I think, is really one of the best paintings I have ever made," Currin offers happily. "I was trying to get that for years. I was trying to get something just like that with that kind of colour."

If Currin sounds briefly boastful, he probably has a right. Even before the retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum in 2003 – which travelled to the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago – he was enjoying a burst of commercial success, his canvases sometimes selling for six-figure sums. Collectors snapped up his portraits, often of society women with outsized breasts and stretched necks that, as The New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in 1999, mixed "leering, light-headed kitsch, with old-masterish weight as if there were no distinction". He called Currin's portfolio ' then "a dizzying feat that makes every picture seem wholesome and evil at the same time".

Currin is respected especially for the labour he puts into perfecting his technique, including the layering of colours to achieve the skin hues that are so crucial to the effect of his work. On the day of our meeting, a book examining the miracles in oil achieved by the Old Masters of Europe lies open on the cistern of his toilet. (The bathtub, meanwhile, is littered with newly rinsed brushes of various grades and sizes.) The struggle to get better, he says, never ends. "It's definitely possible to be better than I am. I don't know if it's possible for me to be better than I am, but I hope so. I want to get better."

The accolades and the success of the Whitney exhibition might have bloated Currin with self-satisfaction. But he proves equally good at self-effacement and has no trouble acknowledging that the period immediately after the retrospective was especially difficult for him.

What did not knock him off course, he insists, were the few reviews of that show that differed sharply from all the others, notably one in The New Republic magazine. Its author, Jed Perl, took a blow-torch to him and his works. "Currin's oft-admired 'technique'... would not have earned him an entry-level job in a painter's workshop 300 years ago," Perl wrote. "Many of the poverty-stricken girls who painted flowers on porcelain plates in 19th-century French factories were more talented than he is. He is merely the latest sharpie to make a killing with the sodden heap of gimmicks that Eric Fischl and David Salle used to bulldoze their way to SoHo stardom in the early 1980s. His work is toxic – art pollution."

No, Currin has not forgotten Perl's assault, though he says he resisted reading it from start to finish. But now, at least, he can scoff. "There is so much self-loathing with people like Perl. I always thought it was hilarious that art critics are the only critics who resent their subjects so openly." Part of the problem, Currin asserts, is that critics somehow take offence when artists start making serious money. "They have a bug up their ass if you get high prices for things. They wouldn't say this stuff about Mary J Blige. I have never understood this idea that there is something scandalous about artists making money."

It follows that Currin should not be coy about his pecuniary advancement. This chilly-cement studio used to be his home, but since marrying his fellow artist and muse Rachel Feinstein, with whom he has two children aged four and two, he has moved into much nicer Manhattan digs. "I always wanted to be a famous artist and I wanted to be a successful artist. I never really wanted to be rich until ' I had children. Now I do want to be, because I realise how different things are if you are rich. It helps to have a ton of money."

What perhaps did not endear Currin to some in the art world was his abrupt decision, five years ago, to abandon the Manhattan gallery that had nurtured him for so many years, whose owner, Andrea Rosen, he had once dated, and take himself instead to the high-octane Gagosian Gallery, where he remains. "That was a huge shift and, at least in my world, was a sort of scandal. It was a hard time emotionally and I felt guilty," he says now, while never trying to deny that it was a decision driven almost entirely by commercial concerns.

Indeed, he now acknowledges that several factors contributed to what was indeed a long dry period after the retrospective – a time when, he says, he was also depressed and experiencing a disconcerting "impotence with the brush". Currin remained shaken, for instance, by the experiences of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which had almost cast their shadows on the block where he lived. "I don't think anybody would be able to deduce it from my pictures – the way my life changed and my mood changed and my surroundings changed after that. It was a dividing line in my life."

What came next started by accident. "To me, the best things happen that way," he says, "when you just drift into something because your main mast broke and you are not guiding yourself." Salvation came in the form of a crumpled magazine page given to him by a friend who thought a cartoon on the page might amuse him. What gripped him instead was the porn photo on the other side. And so began Currin's sex spree. Not much of a fan of using live models, Currin has drawn most of his latest works from pornographic images trawled from the internet. More specifically, they are usually Danish porn shots – a fact that is important for Currin, as we'll see.

What drew him to these waters is a question Currin has several answers for. The most obvious, perhaps, is that it was a theme that gave him new reasons to explore ways of paying homage to the nudes of the Old Masters. "I love grand, classically nude paintings and there is really no situation where plausibly you have criss-crossing limbs and stuff like that except in pornography." Also fascinating to him, however, was the possibility of bringing his oil-paint grandeur to scenes of cheap copulation.

"I thought it would be interesting to make them explicit and see if there is any mystery or any space left after you completely drain the potential. It's like when you don't show things, you build up a kind of voltage. So what happens if you totally open it up? Is the painting going to have any kind of energy at all? In a way, these are very unsexual paintings."

It might seem "silly" or "bombastic" (Currin's words) to try thereafter to cast these new works in the context of Islamic fundamentalism and more specifically the furious reaction in parts of the Muslim world to the publication by a Danish newspaper in 2005 of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Mohamed. But this is where Currin, almost embarrassed by the murkiness of what he is saying, takes the conversation. "It's just ridiculous I know, but I should preface this by saying that with everything I do there is usually a kind of alternate structure for the reason I am doing it." Indeed, settling on some kind of rationale for a new project is akin, he says, to pulling on your collar before serving in tennis. '

Few things motivate, meanwhile, more than anger and that is what was stirred in Currin by the cartoon furore. He was infuriated first by the tirades of some Islamic clerics against the cartoon and was then doubly dismayed by what he considered the cowardly response of the West and its media. "I found it incredibly dispiriting that The New York Times and Time magazine wouldn't publish the cartoon. After people had been killed over these things, they wouldn't show people what it was about. You could not find it anywhere." He goes on: "I am caught up in a lot in fear for Europe and fear for the West, that we will lose the war against Islam. And it is a war against Islam, I think."

At this point, I have to confess to losing Currin's thread a little. Are these paintings therefore some kind of repudiation of our political correctness? Or perhaps a celebration of our freedoms, now under threat, including the freedom to disseminate porn? Something like that, he says.

"Neither do I understand the connection, actually," Currin confesses, laughing slightly. "I was thinking of these as images of Europe. We have been hearing a lot of guilt about our warlike ways, how we don't have enough piety, the godless libertine West. I sort of imagined these as illustrations of that insecurity – the twilight of secular socialist democracy. It is important to me that I think of them as images of Europe."

Now, Currin admits, all this socio-political indignation he once felt has faded into the background, replaced most urgently by the need to make the paintings work and be beautiful. Meanwhile, if the reaction of some is that his turning to pornography now is silly, he won't mind.

"Often, I find myself attracted to ideas that are ill-advised and bad," he offers. "It's not because I want to shock people or show how open-minded I am, but for some reason stupidity is a theme for me in painting and I find it liberating... I don't know why, but I feel freer. But perhaps there is some need I have to redeem this silliness with something really solemn and sombre and beautiful."

Indeed, this has been a theme for Currin ever since he began painting the first works that drew recognition, of young women photographed in a school yearbook back in 1989. Silliness – the over-inflated boobs and almost cartoon exaggerations – has, he admits, been almost a shield for him. But behind that shield lurks a serious painter and craftsman.

If the new porno-phase does distress any of his fans, they may have to wait some time for him to move beyond it. Indeed, Currin may only just be getting started. Nor will he be deflected by disapproving rants from Perl or any other art critic. "I always found that changing what I do, because change is overdue, because I feel embarrassed or am anticipating rolling eyes, is always a bad reason to change. The best thing to do is to beat it to death."

Yet Currin admits that while he is confident in painting his intertwining bodies, he is less so when it comes to the still-life elements. And right now there is the large bouquet of flowers lurking in the background of one of his images to complete. The problem, however, is that the real flowers in the glass vase in the studio are wilting – and he has a deadline to meet for an exhibition on the other side of the world.

John Currin will be exhibiting at the Sadie Coles HQ, London W1 (020 7493 8611) from 2 April

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