One of the most celebrated artists of his generation, John Currin effectively revived the moribund art of figurative painting with his unparalleled technical virtuosity. Currin testified to the validity of not just the act of painting but also of representational painting-an idea that was completely out of fashion at the time. Deeply invested in the history of art, Currin's innovation rests not in the modernization of the Old Masters but in investing the contemporary with the gravitas of history painting. "I believe in the old idea of technique," Currin told the New York Times. "I believe you need it if you're going to have magic and genius and masterpieces. No one would question the value of technique in any other field. No one would say that a tennis player would be better if only he could stop hitting the ball.'' (J. Currin, "Mr. Bodacious," New York Times, November 16, 2003.) His work is almost always a mash-up of art historical heavy weights leavened with the lighthearted kitsch of popular imagery or the taboo of pornography. In characterizing the "collision of naked, real-life women and old-master nudes," art historian Robert Rosenblum argues that Currin's "fusion of venerable past and vulgar present comes out as a perfect hybrid that lives in both worlds." (R. Rosenblum, "John Currin and the American Grotesque", in J. Currin, et. al., John Currin, exh. cat., Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, New York, 2003, p.15).
The present lot is a superb example from Currin's early series of impossibly large-breasted women. In a closely cropped interior, we see a young woman with tightly curled strawberry blonde hair playing with a tow-headed toddler. The painting's title, Maid of Honor, gives clue to the narrative; and we now realize the woman is wearing a lacy bridesmaid dress and the bucket of flowers she presents to the little boy is her bridal bouquet. As usual, the woman's features are exaggerated. Her left forearm, which dominates the foreground, is nearly sculptural in its heft and was most likely modeled after the artist's own. In lieu of hiring models, Currin often uses a mirror and paints himself from life. "I get energy from using myself as a model," he has said. "I definitely identify more with women than with men. Making metaphors out of women comes more easily to me than telling a story with both men and women.'' (J. Currin, "Mr. Bodacious," New York Times, November 16, 2003.)
Currin presents a clichéd narrative: a young, virginal bridal attendant cuddling with an exuberant child. In its sentimentality and luxuriant palette it is reminiscent of Renoir's late paintings. As Currin told the painter Cecily Brown in 1998, "Renoir is unbelievable. Shallow and deep. Clichéd and amazing." (C. Brown, "Painting Epiphany," Flash Art 200, May-June 1998, p. 76.) Despite the inanity of the tableau, Maid of Honor presents a weighty sense of solidity. It is a traditional composition with a classical, centralized organization. The painting captures the solidity of a Renaissance Madonna. With her tender, downcast gaze, Currin's bridesmaid echoes the devotion of Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna Litta, 1490.
He also borrows a compositional tool from Vermeer, the concentration of action in the left-side corner of a room, evident in such works as Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1662. While the composition here is too tightly cropped to firmly situate the figures in an actual space, both bodies lean left and the domestic details, the picture frame and table, extend beyond the left of the canvas. Currin's subject matter takes up Vermeer's interest in capturing the simple moments of domestic life (here the flower bucket replaces the role of the water pitcher). And the size of the painting itself furthers this interest as well. In speaking of this period, Currin has said: "I wanted my paintings to be 26 by 32 inches. That was the size that no one was doing. You would see a lot of gigantic paintings, but no one was doing a domestic-size painting, a bourgeois-size painting" (J. Currin, "Mr. Bodacious," New York Times, November 16, 2003).
Despite the seemingly mundane nature of a pre-ceremony genre scene, the image is also eerily disquieting. The artist has set up a tongue-in-cheek play, suggesting that the boy's enthusiastic tickling of the petals is not the only stimulation in the narrative. This is further emphasized by a tiny yet telling detail: the disembodied hand, hidden in shadow, that grasps possessively at the young woman's waist. Curious and ambiguous, Maid of Honor oscillates between the maternal piety of a Madonna and child, the luxuriant sensuality of a boudoir scene, and the kitschy pin-up girls of Americana.