To become a well-known (and well-paid) figurative painter, it takes a recognizable style and subject. Once that goal is achieved, haha, just keep doing it for the rest of your life.
That is the predicament Yuskavage and Currin find themselves in, though whether they see it that way I don’t know.
Circa 25 years ago, both artists mixed up a batch of Old Master-ish techniques and appropriated classical and popular images, including portraying the female body in ways that might be uncomfortable if they were not so insistent that their approach is ironic.
The irony is very important. Without it, Currin might seem to be a misogynist master of schtick and Yuskavage might seem to be painting her own feelings of desire and contempt.
Irony, the use of an image to create the opposite of its literal meaning, is a liberating invention—both Yuskavage and Currin issued a punk challenge to viewers. Once those viewers—and galleries, collectors and museum curators—became hip to it, comfortable with it, even in on it, it flattered their intelligence, and that’s all.
Two notes about irony: it must be surprising—it can’t be used over and over in the same way—and it restricts any other emotional and aesthetic response.
The strategy to hold on to one’s gallery is not to change your work but to tweak it.
My plan for this review was to analyze these in detail: Currins heavy handed trompe l’oeil, disconnected figures and exaggerated sexual parts, Yuskavage’s saccharine landscapes, studio interiors with signature paintings in the background and the introduction of an innocent boy and girl that reminded me of Love is…—but look at the paintings, you can see all that for yourself.
But the other night I netflixed The Starling, a film starring Melissa McCarthy playing a mother who has lost her child and whose grieving husband has escaped into a mental institution.
I don’t care what Rotten Tomatoes says, I was moved by it—this movie is about grief unassuaged by therapy and never “accepted” and still the protagonists find a way to go on because they love each other and because they have a sense of humor—I haven’t quite seen that before. I love Bridesmaids and The Heat and McCarthy could certainly go on repeating herself, but she doesn’t.
Why do most painters? I am not just talking about Yuskavage and Currin either. I asked a few people, some artists, a collector—they all seemed surprised by the question—isn’t it normal to continue whatever you are famous for? Or the galleries insist on it, so they have no choice—or isn’t it unfair of me to ask that?
Coincidentally I have noticed that it’s very rare to hear that people are excited about a painter’s new work.
There are painters who continue to explore and change—I’ll just focus on Jasper Johns for now because he has a two part retrospective at the Whitney and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you only think of the flags and the crosshatching, his “signature” paintings if you will, then you don’t know his work—unafraid to fail, ironic, minimal, conceptual, and also purely emotional. He is 91 and I’m looking forward to seeing and judging his new work.