Painting’s Male Provocateur Turns His Brush To Men

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03.09.2019

John Currin doesn’t have a private plane, or a yacht, or the keys to a hotel suite he can stay in at a moment’s notice—you know, the toys a rich guy in a movie might have. But for a painter, he certainly has the full treasure chest: a wooden mid-century bungalow on a lake in Mount Desert Island, Maine. A weekend house on the North Fork of Long Island. A townhouse in Gramercy, that he and his wife, the artist Rachel Feinstein, spent half a decade rebuilding from the ground up. They have three beautiful kids. Cool and powerful friends in fashion, art, media, and society. He lives comfortably enough that he can say things like, “If I ever do another country house, I’m making my studio closer.”

And he has a silver Porsche! “Yeah,” he said, apologetic and amused, when he picked me up at the airport near his Mount Desert home. “I’m that guy who picked you up in a Porsche.”

Currin has collected all these goodies during his career as the premiere chronicler of twisted women in the dubious grip of male desire. He’s a rare thing: a celebrity painter. (And also a painter of celebrities: perhaps you saw the September 2017 Vogue cover he painted of Jennifer Lawrence as one of his Rococo-Mannerist ingenues.) Now, he’s having his first museum show since 2003, featuring his paintings of…men. Opening at Dallas Contemporary on September 15, it’s called “My Life as a Man”—a title borrowed from the Philip Roth novel, and audaciously, perfectly faux-macho. In July, I went to his house in Maine, where he and Feinstein decamp for basically the whole summer, doing yoga, getting massages, playing with their kids’ iguana, and making art. (Feinstein also has a major show opening at the Jewish Museum in November; she is also probably the coolest woman on the planet.)

But for all his great stuff, Currin obsessively thinks about the masculine idea the art world believes he embodies, but that in his mind forever eludes him. He is haunted by the idea of being inauthentic. He’s got a Porsche, sure—but it’s because he like, can’t have a Ferrari. “I may very well look stupid in a Porsche, but I’d look really stupid in a Ferrari. It’s just like, I don’t have the… You have to have black hair, you have to have, you can’t just…” He trails off, his hands waving in search of the words. “My facial… I don’t have the right nose. Whereas the silver Porsche is kind of like a balding guy. It kind of looks more like”—he gestures up at himself—“you know?”

Or it’s like, you know, the difference between Sean Connery playing James Bond and Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. (If Currin had a nickel for every time he chuckled and darted to another extended parable of the perfect male specimen versus a less refined reality, he’d be, well, as rich as a guy in a movie.) Connery, “you can’t stop looking at him. He’s funny, he’s cruel, mean to women.” He doesn’t walk down the street with everybody else, he doesn’t wait for the light to turn green—“he doesn’t deal with any of the tiny humiliations.” Eastwood, on the other hand, “has a crappy apartment. There’s nothing in his fridge. There’s no woman ever. There’s no loyal woman doing things for him. He’s constantly having to wait for stop signs. He drives a shit car, has clothes that don’t fit him, and has a fucking big gun. Whereas James Bond has the Walther PPK, a teeny tiny little gun, right?”