Following a 2003 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum, the artist John Currin fell into a long dry spell, what he described in an interview with the Independent as “impotence with the brush.” Two years into the funk, he found a cartoon a friend had torn from a dirty magazine and sent to him in hopes of lifting his spirits. On the other side of the cartoon was a pornographic photo of a woman in a corset, her legs spread wide. He began a painting based on the image. Inspired, he prowled the Internet for more porn shots, and started more pieces. His sexual paintings are graphic, luscious, and fearless. In one, a man and a woman, naked, kiss open mouthed, their wet tongues fused, the woman with her right hand around the man’s rigid penis, the man with his left middle finger inside the woman; in another, two women fondle a third.
[private]I am not interested in art but I am interested in sex, so after I first learned of Currin in a New Yorker profile in January, 2008, his name and his work stayed with me. I didn’t think about him, however, until nearly a year later, when my writing stalled. Not being able to write when you want to is like not being able to come. It is impotence with the pen, or a premature menopause drying up the creative juices. Lucky for me, recent conversations among my friends about erotica brought Currin to mind. I hope he and his work will do for me what the picture on the back of the cartoon did for him.
Though my talent for art is as meager as my knowledge of and interest in the world of art, in college I took both printmaking and drawing, assuming those classes would be easy credits and a nice break from writing and literature. For our final printmaking assignment, students were told to select the technique they most enjoyed—woodcut or linocut, etching or silk-screening—and create a print of a body part.
Little amused me more than my ability to shock people with my writing (easy for a blunt New Yorker to do to an audience of sheltered undergrads), and my choice of body part was a no-brainer. I did not have the skill to design something beautiful, nor the understanding needed to make a print based on theories deeper than beauty. It takes an extraordinary talent to paint a vagina as sumptuously as John Currin does; it takes no talent to simply draw one. In my room I sat naked before the mirror, opened my legs, and sketched. Back in the studio, I began etching: rounded buttocks, lips, a hint of clitoris, hundreds of whorls around it all, twirling to the top of the metal plate. On the last day of class I hung my print in the front of the room between a woodcut of a bloodshot eye and a screen print of a wrist streaming rivers of blue and red. The teacher and my classmates regarded my art very seriously. They mistook my audacity for thoughtfulness.
I am envious of artists like Currin who can find their subjects outside themselves. In my writing as much as in my printmaking I turn inward for my inspiration. The view vacillates between fascinating and dull, sometimes disconcertingly clear, other times muddled, but always limited. Focusing on outside objects—a crinkled paper shopping bag, a statue of a dog in the town park, stacks of cardboard boxes—was a requirement of my college drawing class. My work never progressed beyond what an attentive six-year-old could do. The teacher noted that my naïve perspective added to the charm of my work, but he had to point out that artistically it was a serious flaw.
In some of his paintings, Currin will render a woman just as she appears in the porn shot until he gets to her face, at which point he borrows the face of a model from an old clothing catalogue. Instead of seeing what we’d expect to see atop a body being licked, fingered, or fucked—eyes rolled back in pleasure, a mouth tensely determined or opened in a breathy, silent wail—we find vapid eyes and a lying smile. The effect is jarring. He is not depicting the raunchy sex of regular people but the sex of pornography, sex staged for an insatiable market, and underneath the masks of orgasmic delight aren’t the actors feeling as phony as clothing models? At times don’t we all go through the motions, including the facial contortions, when really we’re elsewhere?
My undergraduate thesis was an autobiographical novella about my first sexual relationship. That’s what I called it, anyway. Truthfully, it was memoir written in the third person. I didn’t fictionalize a word but wrote it all as I remembered it, changing only the names of the characters. This allowed me the distance I needed to write about something so intimate. I didn’t get off the subway at 3 a.m. with so many hickeys on my face I looked like I’d been beaten, and find my father waiting there for me. She did. I didn’t lose my virginity at fifteen on my friend’s parents’ bed to a drunk eighteen-year-old who didn’t wear a condom and finished by jerking off over my bloody belly. She did.
Currin said in the New Yorker profile, “I’d like to get the sex thing over with, but I realized I’m not done with it.” If I were as brave as Currin, the bulk of my work might be about sex, too. In the cacophony of my mind, carnal thoughts and memories are a siren song. So many of our youthful personal landmarks, the milestones that become most meaningful to a child approaching adolescence, are sexual ones, and it is the stuff from those years that cleaves to us forever. Some girls dread their first period, but others ache for its arrival; we anticipate with terror and yearning our first kiss, the feel of a breast in our hand or a hand on our breast; fingers and tongues exploring the parts we’ve only touched ourselves; and finally the day we are virgins no more. Clumsy and fumbling, sweet and loving, rough and painful, sex is as multilayered as paint on a canvas or a well-constructed essay. That it be portrayed in art with frankness is the only fair treatment of an act so complex and universal.
For Currin, though, to be frank is to be obscene. Rarely does he depict a vulva that is not spread wide open, wet, eager to be or already penetrated. But he lavishes on the bedclothes, a lace glove, or a set of dishes the same attention he gives women’s genitals. This may be why his paintings can cross the line of graphic representation without losing their respectability. Even when they are obscene, they are beautiful.
Enjoying porn is a sort of voyeurism; producing sexually explicit material based on your own experiences is a sort of exhibitionism. Because writing any personal nonfiction is much like masturbation—the concentrated devotion to self, culminating, when it goes well, in a deep sense of satisfaction—the author of erotic essays is, essentially, pleasuring him or herself in front of an audience.
The first time sex—intercourse—made me come, I was sixteen and doing it on a park bench with that same boy to whom I’d lost my virginity. Ben had long, messy rock-star hair, eyes blue as a thousand clichés, deliciously full lips; my attraction to him was so consuming I had ceased to exist for any purpose other than to be with him. We were in Stuyvesant Town, on Manhattan’s East Side, on a late spring or early summer night, when it was warm enough to wear a skirt without tights or leggings. My friend Olga, an odd girl who was still years away from having sex herself, asked if she could watch us. Ben and I had just finished smoking a joint and thought Olga’s idea was a good one. While Olga sat on one end of the bench, I took off my panties and straddled Ben on the other. We smiled and kissed. As usual, there was no condom. Dozens of identical red-brick apartment buildings stood quiet guard around us. Two uncles, an aunt, and a cousin of mine lived in Stuyvesant Town. It could have been the thrill of fucking outdoors, in front of someone, the risk of getting caught, the humid air against my legs, the genial position conducive to climaxing, a combination of all those things—but I knew, almost immediately, that the long-awaited orgasm was coming. I slumped over Ben’s shoulder as he rushed to pull out. Panting and a bit dizzy, I giggled against his neck. Young and oblivious, he hadn’t realized that this one, different from all the others, was real. Olga nodded, impressed.
So began my fondness for outdoor activities and public displays of affection. Over the next four years, Ben and I sought out other park benches; we tried the beach (too sandy); we let another friend watch us (she masturbated as we fucked but wouldn’t let either of us touch her); we froze in the Vermont woods in April (the ground both hard and muddy from still-melting ice and snow, and gnarled tree roots, rocks, and twigs scratching our ignorant city asses). Only after we broke up but continued to meet illicitly did our habitual exhibitionism lose its quality of youthful, experimental innocence. He had a new girlfriend, and I was afraid that I’d never be loved by anyone else. One day when I was home from college on break he told me to meet him at work at lunchtime; he knew a place where we could go. Wordlessly, we headed west on Fortieth Street, distracted by the midday midtown hubbub of delivery trucks blocking traffic, the honking of cars trapped behind the trucks, people running errands or eating lunch as they walked, trying to squeeze life in at lunchtime. The air smelled of street-vendor hot dogs and exhaust and cigarette smoke, but sometimes a breeze carried an undercurrent of fresh green spring.
Then I saw, in a window across the street, posters and t-shirts colorful and sinister below neon signs: Peepshow, Adult Videos, XXX. With his hand around my shoulders, Ben walked us quickly past the two men behind the front counter, past the shelves of videos, to a row of doors. We entered an empty stall. The walls were tomato-bisque orange, with a screen in the middle of one of them, and the space tight, a little bigger than the average apartment closet. A blobby viscous smear like spit but of course not glazed a spot on the dark gray floor. Before I could change my mind, Ben took a roll of quarters from his jacket pocket and started feeding them into the slit next to the screen. Our movie began with two naked women—a skinny blonde with bulbous breasts and a skinny brunette with smaller, perky tits and big, brown, upturned nipples—kneeling on a thin bed in a bare room, passionately, sloppily kissing, too much tongue and wetness, twangy porn music blocking some of their slurps and groans. The brunette lay back on the black sheet and those happy nipples of hers pointed straight up to God. The blonde licked circles around one of them while pinching the other before trailing her long tongue all the way down to her friend’s hairless, gleaming cunt.
That was all I saw of the movie. It had served its purpose, arousing me enough that it didn’t matter that we had to be fast and that I was no longer attracted to Ben. I pushed up my flowery skirt—much like the one I’d worn the night on the bench in front of Olga—and removed my underwear, careful not to let them touch the floor. Unlike the night on the bench, I would not come. My forearms were pressed against the wall; I balled my hands to prevent my fingers from touching anything. I heard doors around us open and shut. Hungry for more quarters, the screen went blank. After Ben yanked himself out of me, I dropped my skirt over my sticky skin but left my panties crumpled in my jacket pocket. On shaky legs we left our booth and hurried toward the front door. My head was down.
It was too bright outside. Ben yammered the whole way back, another noise in a city of noises, and I didn’t care what he was saying, I only wanted to be alone. Expertly finding paths through the crowd as only New Yorkers know how to do, we brushed by other people, bumping their arms, never looking back. I focused on my short subway ride home, on my bathtub, where I could give myself the orgasm he couldn’t give me and clean my body in water so hot I’d sweat and the world around me would redden. Before we arrived at his store he slipped me a small bag of hash. I stuck it in my jacket pocket with my panties.
“Best lunch ever,” he said, pecking me on the cheek. “Peepshow chicken.”
At twenty-three, I told these and similar stories to an older man I was trying to seduce, a client of the marketing firm where I had an internship. I both succeeded and failed: he found me irresistible but disgusting. He fondled me under tables at fancy restaurants, pressed my head down to his crotch in taxis, bought an antique bench for us to use on his terrace; but sometimes, out of the blue, glaring and seething, he would ask me how I could have done the things I did with Ben and others. His disgust, I surmised, had less to do with me and more to do with the urges I brought out in him, but still I burned with a shame I’d never felt before—not because of the restaurants, taxis, and terrace, but because I chose to be with a person who found me shameful. My motive in sharing my intimate experiences had been to get him in bed; how many of us have the foresight to consider what may happen after that?
John Currin stated that one impulse behind his pornographic paintings was to take something clearly unbeautiful and turn it into something beautiful, though he admitted to feeling humiliated by the work. I whispered like a caress the salacious stories of my past to this man twice my age and knew exactly why I was doing it, but did not anticipate the shame that would follow. On the page my stories are not whispered, the motives compelling me to put them there are not so clear, and the repercussions are not known. So why do it? “All art is about its own making,” Currin said.
When I decided to make an etching of my vagina, I wanted my classmates to be awed by my daring. When I met Ben for lunch, I did so out of loneliness, but also for fun: my high-school years had overflowed with adventure, and I was bored. When I seduced the older client, I needed to test my power. Now, circumstances are naturally different from what they were in high school, in college, and at my first real job. I, however, am very much the same. Risks have always been, at least in part, their own reward. What I can no longer do on a park bench I can always do on paper.
In John Currin’s painting Purple Bra, a woman lies with legs apart on a white, soft-looking blanket. Only her torso appears on the canvas; she has no face. Other than a lacy lavender bra pushed up over her chest, she is nude. She hugs herself with her left arm, her hand tucked gently below her breast. Her right arm vanishes off the side of the painting, perhaps holding up her right leg, of which we see only a slice; a greater portion of her inner left thigh is visible, flat against the blanket. Peeking out from under her right shoulder is a thatch of straw-colored hair. In the center of her stomach, her belly button curves temptingly, like a pond in the middle of a desert. Pale skin disappears below a dark, wild, unkempt pelt. Her lips are parted slightly. A black tunnel forms in the crevice between her buttocks.
The pose is one of a woman who has just been touching herself. She finished her morning shower, maybe, and started to dress when the mood struck her. The blanket is chenille, sensuous, a kiss against skin softened and perfumed by lotion. Lying back, the fingertips of her right hand wander across her belly and down to her thigh, where they linger, tracing paths to and from the edge of her pubic hair, while her left hand pushes up her purple bra and kneads each breast in turn. She keeps her right hand busy on her thigh until desire transforms into a pulsing ache. Her pelvis has developed a mind of its own and is lifting and twisting toward her fingers. One finger first, like the tip of a tongue, grazes her clitoris. She lets the finger slip down to capture the wetness accumulating below and spreads it around her lips. With her left hand she continues to massage her breasts, playing with her nipples, gentle, hard, gentle again. Clean smells from her shower mingle with the musk of her body. The finger that’s been dancing circles around her clitoris begins moving more rapidly, then dizzily falls in the hole below. Her left hand jumps down to help. She is raising her hips off the blanket now, one finger inside the larger opening, another teasing the smaller, while her right hand resumes its work on the outside. Air builds up in her lungs and escapes in huffs, in pants, in little strangled moans. She leans forward. Her hands are a whirlwind, on high speed, tickling, pumping, licking, fucking, until they are clenched by the muscles inside, and she whimpers, and falls back. Her legs close around her hands and she rolls from side to side. Hair is caught underneath her shoulder, pinching, but she ignores it. Finally resting again, she extracts her left arm and settles it against the bottom of her chest, where it lifts and drops with her breaths. Her legs, sweaty and damp, part. She brings her right hand to her face, to her nose and to her mouth, before wiping it off on her right thigh. A clock on her nightstand catches her eye, reminding her she has somewhere to be. She sighs, satisfied.[/private]