In Montreal, DHC/ART is a go-to destination for the finest in international contemporary art. The gallery brings the most famous artists in the planet to our ville, like the subtly subversive painter John Currin. I had the chance to chat with him recently…
DHC/ART is actually two galleries in side-by-side buildings: beautiful Beaux-Arts architecture on the outside – minimalist white cubes inside, though the most striking thing in the gallery currently are John Currin’s paintings. I had the pleasure of meeting Currin as he explained his work.
In one work, he pointed out a ‘‘grotesque gent portrayed alone in a somewhat feminine room. His image was borrowed from Mad magazine.’’ Interestingly, the men in Currin’s work not only seem unimportant – they are unattractive. It is the women he paints so lovingly, although often with a caustic comment. On the first floor, in an early work you can see a painting of an elegant, older lady. Sardonically, Currin has emphasized her age and her thinness; she is a wealthy ‘social X-ray’ – Tom Wolfe’s famed comment on some socialites.
Indeed, Currin took her image from a society page covering a gala. In fact, much of his work is ‘borrowed’ – part of contemporary art’s approach of appropriation: taking an image from somewhere and incorporating it into your own work. ‘‘Some bits came from copyright-free Clip art; some from medieval engravings, others from magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitain.’’ His work is full of many allusions. After a trip to Venice, Currin admits that the works he saw there influenced his technique. He started to underpaint, adding thin layers of background hues before painting the foreground figures.
In Stamford After Brunch (2000), the faces show happy, preppy lasses. But their bodies are strange – almost anorexic: kneebones poke through sharply. I noted that in many paintings, the ladies have inordinately large bosoms: the artist’s commentary on the current craze for that enhancement. Along with his superbly accomplished flesh tones and facial expressions, another skilful side of the artist is his ability to paint still life in the manner of the Old Masters. Glass gleams; grapes glisten. And look closely at one of my favourites, Sno-Bo (1999). Many subtle underpainted shades add a shimmer to the sky. A lovely, blonde nymphet, complete with a hobo-style backpack, stands amidst falling snow. Here are some secret details I would never have guessed had not the artist told me. There is a bandage on her leg, and a curious funeral-style black band on her arm. The artist added both as a kind of ‘‘salute to a friend whom I thought was dying.’’ Note the fashionable red wedge lace-up espadrilles. ‘‘Actually, they were shoes my wife bought – and that I hated!’’
As you stroll through all four floors at DHC, one thing you will notice is Currin’s derisive detailing of today’s obsession with body perfection. Stand back and admire this wonderful show. Then step as close as you can so you can appreciate John Currin’s technical mastery and his meticulous attention to detail. The exhibit is fabulous: full of shock and awe. Works were lent by private collectors, as well as by such prestigious collections and galleries as the Tate and Gagosian.
John Currin until November 13 at DHC/ART, 451 St-Jean, (514) 849-3742