Driven by his own unique vision, Currin is heralded as one of the most important artists of his generation and more specifically in the powerful position of re-directing art history back to discussions of painting's relevance and closing the gap in the disjointed lineage of genre painting. John Currin's paintings fuse various sources, from women's photographs from 1960s magazines to 16th century German painting, Italian Mannerism and 18th century painters such as Boucher, Fragonard Valesquez and 19th Century Courbet. In Buffet, Currin paints a blissfully quotidian domestic scene in a way that can be described as anything but dull. Not only does the artist reference the centuries-old tradition of genre painting, but he also adopts the bravura of oil painting traditionally reserved for grand history works. Tension between image type and painterly style compels further investigation of both surface and subject.
Currin uses his figures to provoke. Although not as explicitly voyeuristic as many of his early nudes, Buffet and other works of this period depicting bourgeois leisure activities are still confrontational. The woman, placed at the center of the composition, wears a well-tailored green-striped designer suit designed to indicate her class and status, compelling the viewer to assess the confounding elements and draw conclusions about the meaning of the painting as a whole.
Contrasting painting styles direct attention to the woman’s heavily exaggerated facial features. Her solid forehead and sharply protruding nose contrast the man, whose gestural treatment renders him nearly translucent. In the style of Tintoretto or El Greco, the figure seems to wrap around the space it occupies, confusing planes of depth in background and foreground. The man’s lapel seems to rest on top of the woman’s shoulder, and the plate at the bottom of the composition thrusts forward, held by a hand belonging to the woman or someone serving her.
Renaissance painting, particularly Cranach's frozen Venuses and Boticelli's excessive female forms, have imparted major influence on Currin. Compositionally, the artist employs a classical sense of organization. Favoring the center of the canvas as the vortex of action and energy, their compositions are nearly perfect concise narratives, where the story can be told from the center outward, and backgrounds serve to add nuance. Nineteenth century painters such as Boucher are studied and mined for their flowery and abundant nudes. American genre paintings of all types seem to compel Currin. Norman Rockwell's obvious and pleasing narratives, as well as Maxfield Parish's glibly stylized works can be seen as precursors to Currin, particularly in their desire to tell a simple and innocent story. In effectively the same format as Rockwell and Parish, Currin seeks to bring a truly contemporary message to his works and interweaves the social, the political and the humorous, at times with impunity. Charmed by the old-fashioned but a product of contemporary art, Currin states, “Well, in a funny way I feel weirdly brand-new, because it is so anachronistic to paint. Right now I'm reading The Quiet American by Graham Greene. And you can't help but feel that being an American is like having deep principles, but not being aware of them, and everything you do consciously is stupid, clownlike. I think I have great skills and great sensitivity to paint, and I think I understand European painting, but sometimes I feel like my American-ness is a handicap or a clown outfit that I am constantly find myself in. There is nothing I can do about it" (Interview with John Currin by Rochelle Steiner in John Currin, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, p.83).
As Currin takes his place in art history, his indelible mark will no doubt be on how he re-affirmed the power of genre painting. By looking at scenes from everyday life with his unique lens of unconventional beauty, Currin brings to light just how socially and aesthetically transgressive turn of the millennium American culture looks. Busty females at the bra shop, nude women of impossible proportions intertwined against a black backdrop, two bare-backed men biblically perched on the back of a fishing boat, a society woman in line at a buffet—Currin is never short on compelling, if even at times archetypal visuals. He true genius however is his capacity to re-convert all of us again to the luscious spectacle of great painting.