A riot of color, fully loaded paint stokes, impasto and hints of imagery (often naughty) are the hallmarks of a powerful Cecily Brown work. The imagery is always a means to an end, and the end is always pure unadulterated painting.
The art historian Dore Ashton writes:
"decidedly there is something immensely hedonistic in her painting manner, and something of a general narrative. She is a painter who makes journeys and tells herself stories--but in her own language: the language of painting ... For a painter, a painting is a place. The whole meaning of illusion lies there, in creating the reality of a place within which the regard of the viewer is absorbed and rendered other (C. Brown, Cecily Brown, New York, 2008, p. 20).
The painting Berserkers is a classic example of this. An explosion of fall colors, thick luscious paint, and passages of representational imagery-the subject seems to be a group of people in the manner of Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte--it proclaims the pleasure of painting.
The title is especially apt. A Berserker is a figure from ancient Norse mythology, a frenzied and unruly warrior.
At first, the paint hits you like that: a wild orgy of deep hued oils organized in an explosion of thick brushstrokes. Desires of the flesh are never far from Brown's work, although the true indulgence comes not from the imagery, which is often pornographic if you can make it out, but by the seductiveness of the style of painting. She takes De Kooning's quotation that flesh was the reason oil paint was invented to even more hedonistic spectacles.
But this is just the first encounter. Spend more time with Berserkers and you start to realize that holding up this carnival of paint and color is a deep regard for the entire history of painting. It clearly references De Kooning and Seurat (umbrella upper right), but also Titian, Delacroix, Giorgione, Watteau and Manet.
"I feel inseparable from the history of European painting; I definitely feel steeped in it. When I first started painting, it seemed very natural to me to want to be in a conversation with old masters" (Ibid., p. 25).
Although it is self-consciously aligned with the tradition of European painting, Berserkers is primarily concerned about what painting means today. All the elements of Berserkers combine to produce a tenuous balance between the lusciousness of the paint on the surface of the canvas and the hints of imagery, which ask one's eye to search for the illusion of depth and traditional representation. The painting vibrates with the tension between what the eye wants to see (the picture) and what it must experience because it cannot fully make out the imagery. This vibration approximates the unfixed nature of experience: "I am interested in the unfixed nature of things. I want the viewing of [my work] to approximate the experience of being in the world." (Ibid., p. 25).