Creating New Sexual Imagery: The Work of John Currin and Terry Richardson

July 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

A recent trend that has developed in both art and fashion is the use of classical technique to portray a modern sexuality. American painter John Currin cleverly draws from both contemporary pornography and classical art to create arresting and humorous work. In “The Women of Franklin Street” (2009), Currin uses classical painting techniques like “underpainting” – painting over a monochromatic base with pigmented glazes – and an Old World aesthetic to transport a common porn trope – a lesbian threesome – to the Renaissance. Instead of taking place in a freshman dorm, fire station, or other familiar backdrop, the women kiss and fondle each other in a plush, aristocratic salon. Similarly, in lieu of g-strings and nipple piercings, the women don elegant hosiery and flowing robes. The work makes clear references to canonical painters like Diego Velázquez (one of Currin’s favorites) with its rich colors, soft female shape, and dramatic background. Also, the arrangement of the women – a central figure, gazing outward, flanked by two attendants – is reminiscent of the Virgin Mary swaddled by buxom cherubs. But the act of three women hungrily having sex (one woman is eating another’s nipple and stroking her vagina at the same time!) lets viewers know that we are no longer in the 15th century.

Currin's "The Women of Franklin Street" (2009; via Artnet)

Like Currin, Terry Richardson uses classical artistic motifs to put a comical spin on modern-day sexuality. Take his Tom Ford Eyewear ad below. It depicts Spanish model Jon Kortajarena sprawled on the floor, only wearing glasses and a watch. The image works in two ways. On one end, the image bursts with a modern sexuality – the tanned body, the hardened gaze, the sleek accessories – but on the other, the nudity can be read as a return to innocence as in Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” (1485). In that work, nudity is a natural part of life, a state of being. In a way, Kortajarena’s pose treats nudity similarly – his flayed legs (as opposed to crossed or held tightly together) recalls an unknowing infant without bottoms.

Tom Ford Eyewear Ad (via republikcintamanagementstudio)

The humor in Currin and Richardson’s work, created by this contrast of the classical and the contemporary, allows them to subtly push sexual boundaries. Currin has mentioned in past interviews that the inspiration for his pornography-themed pieces arose in part as a reaction to an increase in media censorship. In light of this, it seems that his paintings are meant to antagonize the viewer and question the bounds of “acceptability.” To a large degree, however, the lightness in Currin’s work detracts from their vulgarity and his mission to provoke. Similarly, by incorporating a sense of humor into his photographs, Richardson disarms some of their sexual aggression. Is Kortajarena a horny playboy? Or is he just a grown man acting like a baby?

Despite the vast differences in aesthetic and medium between Currin and Richardson, they have both succeeded in changing society’s relationship with sexual imagery. They have created some of the most provocative visuals of our culture today, and the funny thing is that most of us haven’t even noticed.

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