‘I like the sense of claustrophobia that results from sticking fairly closely to art history. It’s almost as if I’m shut in Plato’s cave, seeing the world in the shadows on the walls – the shadows being my library of second-hand images and the cave being my studio, I suppose’
A display of astounding technical splendour and compelling conceptual depth, Glenn Brown’s The Creeping Flesh is an enthralling example of the artist’s unique painterly practice. Brown casts a cold postmodern eye over the modernist belief in authentic expression, meticulously copying and enlarging a reproduction of Frank Auerbach’s Head of J.Y.M. II (1981). The two artists’ intentions and handling of paint could hardly be more different: Auerbach’s thick, emotive impasto is rendered utterly flat through Brown’s precise photorealism, which radically undermines our psychological and technical expectations of what painting should do. Working from a poor-quality printed reproduction of the earlier work, Brown’s version has become smooth and glacial. Cropping to the subject’s head, the brushstrokes of Auerbach’s intensely felt portrait are painstakingly reproduced; Julia Yardley Mills’ face is nearly lost in slick, volcanic striations, and a precisely muddied background of swirling polychrome pigment gleams with unnerving flatness. Every trace of Auerbach’s brush is carefully, clinically replicated. Neither abstract nor representational in any orthodox sense, this is no longer a work of passionate subjective statement but a calculated degrading of the painterly gesture into an arbitrary, repeatable cipher. An eerie chill falls over the work, its virtuosic execution expelling the thought and feeling of Auerbach’s original in a spectacle of sublime, grandiose superficiality. Its gleaming luxury makes the work an extraordinary and beautiful thing, haunted with the gorgeous, melancholy emptiness of the contemporary age.
As Christoph Grunenberg has written, Brown’s paintings ‘live on the productive tension between extreme glamour and abject misery, confronting the viewer with a set of mysterious paradoxes’ (C. Grunenberg, ‘Capability Brown: Spectacles of Hyperrealism, the Panorama and Abject Horror in the Painting of Glenn Brown,’ Glenn Brown, exh. cat. Tate Liverpool, 2009, p. 15). Indeed, for all the artist’s apparent iconoclasms of art history, his decision to work in paint reflects a devotion to the medium that flies in the face of contemporary convention: painting is unfashionable, and Brown’s obsessive approach has resurrected it with astounding, necromantic power. ‘I like the sense of claustrophobia that results from sticking fairly closely to art history,’ Brown has said. ‘It’s almost as if I’m shut in Plato’s cave, seeing the world in the shadows on the walls – the shadows being my library of second-hand images and the cave being my studio, I suppose’ (G. Brown, quoted in R. Steiner, ‘Interview with Glenn Brown,’ Glenn Brown, exh. cat. Serpentine Gallery, London 2004, p. 97).
Brown’s typically ambiguous title, The Creeping Flesh, is taken from a 1973 British horror film of the same name in which an evil prehistoric skeleton comes gorily to life; the physical medium of paint itself is implicated in these gruesome, necromantic overtones. Brown loves painting and admires Auerbach, yet for his own creations ‘it is always the somewhat sad reproduction that fires my imagination, not the real painting’ (G. Brown, quoted in R. Steiner, ‘Interview with Glenn Brown,’ Glenn Brown, exh. cat. Serpentine Gallery, London 2004, p. 95). We live in a world distanced from Auerbach’s faith in genuine artistic subjectivity, our visual environment instead characterised by the endlessly repeated, decaying and appropriated image. It is through this new world which Brown leads us, his brush devastatingly clear, anti-nostalgic and possessed of dark, scintillating wit. Painting is dead: long live painting.