|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
“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.