Sep 22, 2011

PROFILE | Cecily Brown | The Girl Who Had Nothing

Cecily Brown, Hard, Fast and Beautiful, Oil on Canvas, 2000

The comparisons of contemporary artist Cecily Brown's figurative paintings to the modernist Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning's figurative paintings are inevitable:  both artists' figures are swirling masses of color; sometimes angular, sometimes swooping lines define these violent beings as they dip into the background of the paintings and create an environment of chaos.   De Kooning painted chaotic figures of women.   Brown also creates chaos with figures, but the genders of her figures are at times more ambiguous.

Cecily Brown, Night Passage, Oil on Linen, 1999

As is the case in Brown's painting Night Passage, nothing is truly obvious about Cecily Brown’s figurative paintings.  To say she is an Abstract Expressionist denies her the same artistic freedom the categorization denied de Kooning, Philip Guston and their contemporaries:  Cecily Brown, like her predecessors, simply paints figures.   Yet Brown’s figures are full of the type of messy vileness that either sucks the viewer into the painting, as it did myself, or causes the viewer to flee in emotional terror (and miss a truly great experience). 
Cecily Brown, Pyjama Game, Oil on Linen, 1998

Pyjama Game is just such a painting.  It is a bloody pink nightmare of a painting, with women emerging from the background like a rapist emerging from a dark alley:  the women are at once the darkness and the predator, surprising and then snuffing out the unsuspecting passerby.   To view Pyjama Game is to walk into a dangerous world where old traumas fall up to the surface and smack the viewer in the face. Buried, troubled, and fragmented memories glare toward the viewer and force us to confront our own troubled past…a confrontation many viewers and artists are not ready to have.
Cecily Brown, The Girl Who Had Everything, Oil on Linen, 1998

This is Brown’s power as an artist:  to show the ugliness of ourselves, of herself, and to ask us to explore our deepest emotional truths.  And a comparison on this level with de Kooning would seem fair, as his paintings of women are deeply disturbing to behold even as they continue to fascinate us. 

Brown’s color scheme for many of her figurative paintings centers around red, much like Philip Guston’s figurative paintings did.  And like Guston, it is impossible to know what exactly is being conveyed.  Yet something sinister lies beneath.  Guston’s In Bed painting is a red mess of abject loss, and I see the same emotional terror when viewing Brown’s The Girl Who Had Everything.  Truly, this is the Girl Who Had Nothing.

To quote Brown from an interview in 2000 with Odili Donald Odita in Flash Art: 
“Figures are the only thing that I’ve ever painted. I’m interested in the human need or desire to represent itself. I’m fascinated with human narcissism and obsessions with bodies.”  
The word that speaks to me most in this quote is narcissism. Narcissism is nasty business, and growing up surrounded by such nastiness can make for a distorted view of the Self. 

In one interview and in another excerpt from an interview with Brown, she does not divulge her childhood and how it might have certainly influenced her art.  Instead we get the same kind of robotic, Artist-as-Genius answers that I find I am least interested in when listening to many artists talk about their work: the style and approach of the painting, her place in the art world, the experience of painting,etc.  She speaks in the same superficial, intellectual realm when talking about de Kooning: 
“If someone thinks De Kooning is a misogynist that’s fair enough. His feelings about his subject are less important to me than whether it works as a striking image, or if it’s brilliantly done.”   
I disagree.  The feelings of the artist, and subsequently the feelings the art work causes the viewer to process, are all that matter. 
Cecily Brown, The Fugitive Kind, Oil on Linen, 2000

In the two interviews I read about Brown, the interviewers never ask about the story behind the story: the darkness that causes the painter to paint what she paints.  And there is darkness; for to paint such beautifully hideous imagery, an artist like Brown must have walked a terrible path.  It’s unfortunate that she does not divulge any detail about her childhood.  Maybe it’s the interviewers’ fault for not going into depth with the artist; maybe it’s Brown’s inability, or unwillingness, to speak about such unspeakable self-truths. 
Why do I feel, as a reviewer and a viewer, cheated with this type of highbrow, intellectual artistic speech?  It is not because I believe art needs to be fully explained with words; on the contrary, I do not like to be spoon fed what I am supposed to believe or feel about an artist's work.

However,  Brown’s images, like de Kooning, Guston, and Jackson Pollock’s paintings before her ,deserve more.  Her work, on the surface, might be about the motion of paint upon the canvas, or the creative freedom she enjoys while painting, or her views on being a female Abstract painter in a field that historically was dominated by male painters.   Yet her paintings reek of a subconscious understanding of a disrupted and disturbed world, where the nightmare was her life and the life she grew into was full of vileness.  And much like the great Abstract Expressionists before her, Brown has spewed emotional gasoline all over her canvases and lit them with a torch.

--Jonathan Peters


Contributor said...

I find it interesting that you don't talk about the overt sexual content represented in Brown's paintings. You point out that you find them vile and disturbing, and I wonder: is it because these mashed up pornographic figures were painted by a woman? Would it be just as vile if it were painted by a man? Or do you think Brown just has a fascination with pornography? It seems your opinion is that something bad happened to her, but when I have viewed her work before, the initial thought that crossed my mind is that she is commenting on the violence of mainstream pornography. I think that shows how much a person's experience and thoughts count towards their interpretation when viewing art. You mention that she is "fascinated with narcissism and obsessions with bodies," but you're unsatisfied with her "highbrow, intellectual" answers about her art-making. Does an artist have to divulge exactly what makes them create their imagery? I am also interested in your reading of Pyjama Game, where you compare the figures of women to the threat of a rapist. Rape is a very real threat to women, and I am not sure of how to understand your comparison. You say that the women are at once the darkness and the predator, but if the artist told you they were victims, could you see that in the painting? It is perhaps these unanswered questions that make her art draw us in as viewers, constantly checking ourselves for our own experiences and associations in regards to what we perceive as her message, if there is one.

-Syraya Horton

Contributor said...

I apologize that it took so long to respond...I did not realize you had left a comment until today.
I do not believe that artists need to divulge why they create. You've seen enough of my work in art class that I would hope you know I despise this infatuation with art professors and art students' need to talk about art. I've always said: Why do the damn painting if I'm just going to give you a thousand word essay on why I did the damn painting?

For Brown, you are is the person's experiences and thoughts projected into the paintings that form their interpretation. This, to me, is how art works (regardless of the style of art). This is why people view art works in so many different ways.

As for finding these images vile and disturbing: I actually don't associate vile and disturbing with a negative interpretation. I work with vile and disturbing in my art...I work with "ugly". And, yes, if it were painted by a man I would have the same type of reactions. Willem de Kooning is one of my largest influences: I find his paintings of women to be vile and disturbing...and extraordinary. TO me, these emotional responses that Brown (or de Kooning, or whoever) bring about in me is what matters. I connect with this imagery and feel like I understand it on a deep emotional level. It is why I am involved in Art Therapy and why I am pursuing my masters in that field: I work in trauma within my own art and with other individuals in my non-school life...I understand trauma and I am not scared off by it.
I would love to give you my interpretation of Pyjama Game, but it might be best if we explore this via email or in person, as I've recently learned that there is a word count limit on comments in the blog, and my reading of Pyjama Game will take up a lot of space.
Thank you.

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