Keepin' it Real, but Not Enough

— I enjoyed Mia Fineman’s perceptive but careful-not-to-make-too-firm-a-judgment essay on the paintings of John Currin on Slate. I find Currin excruciatingly boring, and technically just OK. Without the funky anatomical distortion (the creepy tiny extremities!), there’s just nothing to take in. But do look at the slideshow which features some other decent neo-realist painters. Vincent Desiderio’s Sleep (Slide #2) is just amazing, if only as a pointlessly showy and psychologically empty (I guess it is about unconsciousness) display of technique. Wade Schuman’s Conversation (#3) has rather more to be said for it, but still strikes me as glib, mannered and flat.

My problem with contemporary figurative painting in general is in the dreadful lack of psychological acuity among the leading painters. I will shout for joy from the mountaintops as soon I see a face that conveys anything like the fierce intelligence of Holbein’s Thomas More, the eerily intense placidity of Durer’s Durer, or the weary but habituated perceptiveness of Rembrandt’s aging Rembrandt. The condition of contemporary figurative painting is a bit like MFA workshop fiction: dazzlingly closely observed and spiritually hollow.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center