John Currin is a polarizing force on the art scene. Admired equally for the ferocious skill with which he produces his figurative oil paintings as he is derided for the louche subject matter contained within them, Currin is an artist of contradiction. But he wields one quality that simply can’t be denied or refuted: He has always and will always refuse aesthetic castration—the art-establishment compulsion to repress straight, male desire.

Currin’s virtuosity is the badge that affords his decidedly heterosexual male gaze its art-world bona fides. Sure, I suppose one could argue that Currin’s practice—rendering porno and B-movie imagery with techniques borrowed from the old masters, Lucas Cranach the Elder being Currin’s most dominant influence—is a touch gimmicky. And yet to give yourself over to Currin’s imagery is to access something of the sublimated erotic impulses that proliferate the whole history of art.

I often find myself baffled by the inability of contemporary critics and historians to acknowledge that strains of both perversity and humor proliferate art history. Goya’s “The Nude Maja” (c. 1800), featuring a young woman splayed out in what is now considered a typically pornographic pose, takes its name from a Spanish word of the 17th century that best translated as “slut” or “whore.” Humor and male desire have been constant threads throughout art history; the only era when both qualities have been woefully lacking is now. Thus, while it might be tempting to situate Currin’s oeuvre within postmodernism, a blending of “high” sensibilities (his technical virtuosity) with “low” subject matter (pornography and jokes), he is, in fact, one of the very few contemporary artists to meet any of the criteria for greatness set by the old masters.

“Currin’s art functions as a defense of the freedoms won by 19th-century bourgeois revolutionaries.”