‘I never want to be saying “this is the way it is”. It is all about ambiguity, and keeping things up in the air. I want the imagery to almost be in a state of flux. In the end it does not matter that much what it is of, you will bring your own story to it. It matters to me while I’m painting it, but I really want the paintings to have a life of their own’ (C. Brown, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZm6jS3rkBE [accessed 9 September 2014]).
Blending the erotic with the landscape, Ha Ha Fresh! is an outstanding example of Cecily Brown’s unique brand of subterfuge. The centerpiece of her 2006 solo exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, London, it is an expansive painting that swirls in a dreamlike vision of covert eroticism. Brown’s paintings, past and present, seductively interact with her audience, not simply in a sexual manner, but also through the sensual tendencies of the oil paint and the pleasurable act of painting itself. Speaking in the year Ha Ha Fresh! was begun, she said, ‘The more I look at paintings, the more I want to paint, the more engaged I become and the deeper and richer it gets’ (C. Brown, quoted in R. Enright, ‘Paint Whisperer: An Interview with Cecily Brown’, Border Crossings, no. 93, February 2005, p. 40). Relishing in the irresolvable tension between representation and direct, momentary, sensory experience, Brown engages seriously and significantly with the history of her medium. At the beginning of her career Brown’s work had a particularly erotic content that complemented the tantalizing, sensual qualities that Brown believes are intrinsic to painting. ‘I think when I was doing a lot of sexual paintings,’ Brown has said; ‘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’, in The Observer, 12 June 2005). As her confidence and command of her medium has grown, she has increasingly drawn inspiration from the wider world. At the time that Ha Ha Fresh! was painted, she was particularly interested in landscape painting, especially, she has said, the enigmatic and melancholic oil sketches of Constable and Rubens. But Old Master painters have always been a source of admiration for Brown: her paintings speak with their language, and seduce with their lessons. Ha Ha Fresh! further cultivates her artistic dialogue through Brown’s love for the inherent characteristics of oil paint and its capacity to so naturally depict flesh. Willem de Kooning once deemed that flesh was the main purpose for the invention of oil painting, and Brown readily agrees, describing oil paint as ‘sensual, it moves, it catches the light, it’s great for skin and flesh and heft and meat I wanted to make something that you couldn’t tear your eyes away from. I like the fact that because my earlier work was so known for having erotic contents, I actually need to give very little now and it’s seen as erotic or hinting at erotic’ (C. Brown, ‘New York Minute: Cecily Brown,’ in AnOther, 14 September 2012).
Using fresh, vital colours that seem to be lifted directly from nature, Brown’s vibrant mark making plays across the two canvases, and appears to change and move at every glance. Each luscious brushstroke is different and deliberate, meaning that paint has been applied to the canvas in a seemingly infinite variety of ways; ranging from thin delicate lines, to aggressive daubs, to fluid, broad strokes, and peppered throughout with controlled drips and splashes. Glimpses of undulating bodies slide in and out of view against fractured passages of grassy green and mottled chestnuts. Broad torso-like zones rendered in the fleshiest of pinks mingle with the broken rhythms of countless smaller brushstrokes, making the canvas come alive with pulsating energy. These abstracted referents appear to allude to sexual frolics in the great outdoors or the time-honoured theme of nudes within a landscape, but its subject matter is deliberately buried in a whirlwind of thick, heavily worked hues. Figures and forms seem to emerge from the dense tangle of brushstrokes and then retreat, defying any easy definition but inspiring a wealth of associations. The highlight of Brown’s solo show at Essl Museum in 2012, speaking on the eve of the exhibition opening, Brown told the audience: ‘I never want to be saying “this is the way it is”. It is all about ambiguity, and keeping things up in the air. I want the imagery to almost be in a state of flux. In the end it does not matter that much what it is of, you will bring your own story to it. It matters to me while I’m painting it, but I really want the paintings to have a life of their own’ (C. Brown, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZm6jS3rkBE [accessed 9 September 2014]).
Emerging as a painter in London during the 1990s, Brown’s practice stood in contrast to the conceptual stance of her yBa contemporaries. Her work celebrates the qualities that are unique to oil painting alone, rejoicing in its inherent tactility, and the way it can reflect every subtle nuance of the artist’s touch. Brown uses the full potential of the palette, and demonstrates an intimate understanding of colour by juxtaposing warm and cool tones in order to create depth and interest on a flat picture plane. The beguiling quality of the paintwork always takes precedence over any obvious imagery, and any motif that Brown holds in her mind while she paints remains deliberately coy. Above all, her paintings embrace mystery, and the fact that paintings do not need to provide a coherent reading. It is not about conveying a specific story; rather they embrace the medium’s potential for illustrating the elusive. The intention is for the forms to draw out unique visual connections within the mind of the viewer. As Brown has said, ‘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 R. Evrén, ‘A Dispatch from the Tropic of Flesh’, Cecily Brown, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2000, p. 8).