Writhing before us, colourful, glistening glimpses of sensual images teasingly flicker before our view across the expanse of the nearly two metre wide canvas. Painted in 1997, Untitled (Yellow) dates from the period when Cecily Brown's orgiastic, sprawling compositions were beginning to gain public acclaim and attention, for instance in the show she had that year at Deitch Projects in New York, the first exhibition in which Jeffrey Deitch had shown the work of a painter.
That general shift towards the re-acceptance of painting during the 1990s was something in which Brown pre-empted many people, introducing her own fevered new form of expressionism to viewers in New York and her native United Kingdom alike. Her pictures from the 1990s such as Untitled (Yellow) feature a fervent, heaving mix of semi-dissolved images that straddle abstraction and figuration, only ever approaching the coherent readings that Brown actively dodges, preferring that our experience is more open and more involved. As she has explained, 'The place I'm interested in is where the mind goes when it's trying to make up for what isn't there' (C. Brown, quoted in J. Tumlir, 'The Paintings of Cecily Brown', pp. 5-10, Cecily Brown, exh. cat., New York & Los Angeles, 2002, p. 9). Crucially, Untitled (Yellow) dates from the period in which she began to abandon the bunnies which had so idiosyncratically peopled a number of her earlier pictures - they appear to have dissolved into the areas of abstract gestural painting and the maelstrom of images of frantic coupling alike, many of which are inspired by the wealth of visual materials which Brown herself absorbs from her library, from art galleries and from the world around her.
Having studied at the Slade in London, Brown moved to New York in the early 1990s, removing herself from the emergent Young British Artist scene, with which she felt her paintings had little in common despite respecting many of the works it produced. Instead, Brown took up the mantle of the Abstract Expressionists who had so defined the New York art scene almost half a century earlier, subverting it to her own purposes. She has taken the machismo associated with that movement as well as the eschewal of figuration and twisted them around on themselves, allowing her to critique that largely masculine movement; at the same time, she has permitted herself the free indulgence of the sensual enjoyment of painting itself, a pleasure that she shares with her American predecessors. Even the act of painting reflects this: she has explained that when she begins a painting, there is no finalised design. Instead, the images suggest themselves as the painting emerges, stroke by stroke:
'My process is really quite organic and starting a painting is one of the best parts for me. I always start in quite a loose and free way. I often put down one ground colour to begin with and then play off that. For the first day or two, everything moves very quickly... then there's often this very protracted middle period of moving things around, changing things, editing' (C. Brown, quoted in 'Cecily Brown: I Take Things Too Far when Painting', The Observer, 20 Sept 2009, reproduced at www.guardian.co.uk).
Brown's dialogue with the Abstract Expressionists is clear in Untitled (Yellow), where the luscious passages of near-abstract paint and the palette itself both recall the works of, say, Willem de Kooning. Similarly, the focus on the vibrating, vivacious slivers of human bodies echoes his evocative depictions of flesh, which he described as 'the reason oil painting was invented'; Brown has said that, 'When I first read that, I thought 'Fuck! That's what I've always thought!' Flesh in oil paintings is the thing I love looking at most' (C. Brown, quoted in C. Mac Giolla Léith, 'Painting Sensation', pp. 47-57, Cecily Brown: Paintings, exh. cat., Oxford, 2005, p. 48). Meanwhile, the tantalising fragments of images, all of which deliberately remain too elusive for a close reading, recall the enigmatic and ungraspable imagery of Arshile Gorky. Similarly, Brown's ability to harness a sense of fluidity in Untitled (Yellow) appears to refer to the works of both artists.
Gorky's pictures from the highpoint of his career had featured the spectral, shattered and unredeemable images of his past, especially the gardens at Sochi, his home in Turkey from which he had fled decades earlier. By contrast, many of the images that swirl through Brown's kaleidoscopic Untitled (Yellow) are visceral fragments of fevered sexual activity. There is a thrusting momentum to the entire spread of this large canvas as fragmentary vignettes of bodies and copulations throng it. This lends the picture an extra dimension of energy and immediacy: Untitled (Yellow) does not just demand our attention, but grabs it, insisting that our eyes appreciate both the grand total of the image seen from afar and the wealth of pulsing, interpenetrating flights of paint that articulate the surface, often insinuating themselves into the world of figuration through the glimpsed depiction of various sexual acts.
That extra dimension extends to the fluidity of the paint, which flows in ribbons and gleams with varnish; this apparent liquidity is perfectly complemented by the various activities which hintingly emerge from this turbulent, foaming mass of colour. Brown herself has explained that, 'I think when I was doing a lot of sexual paintings, what I wanted... was for the paint to embody the same sensations that bodies would. Oil paint very easily suggests bodily fluids and flesh' (C. Brown, quoted in G. Wood, 'I like the cheap and nasty', The Observer, 12 June 2005, reproduced at www.guardian.co.uk). Brown has explained that her deliberate use of the human figure in her paintings, engaged in various sexual acts, is a device that allows her to introduce a problematic distortion of scale. This is evident in the contrast between the elements in Untitled (Yellow), where some of the organs are themselves larger than some of the couples shown within the composition. It is to the heaving, iridescent paint surface itself that Brown is pulling our attention.