‘Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented’ —W. DE KOONING
‘Bosch and Brueghel are my favourites. There are people you use and people you love — I love Titian but I’ve never worked from Titian; and ones you feel very close to — Delacroix; and others you admire from a distance but they’re not like you — Barnett Newman, for instance. I could manage a copy of Delacroix. I’m about energy and movement’ —C. BROWN
‘In a 2010 triptych, The Sick Leaves, which measures more than six metres wide and almost three metres high, Cecily Brown seems to have unleashed the entire arsenal of her brushstrokes, creating a pandemonium, a sort of gigantic kaleidoscope filled with liquids, or a monumental cinematic eruption – a tumultuous and demanding beauty that wavers and expands, now rebuffing, now caressing, hovering between defiance and gratification’ —K. KERTESS
A pyrotechnic expanse of colour and form, The Sick Leaves exemplifies Cecily Brown’s matchless command of oil paint. Her brushwork responds to the macho inheritance of American Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, but is charged with a rich new sensuality. The three vast panels of this monumental triptych are alive with flurries of flesh tones, solar yellows and vivid reds; tropic greens and earthy swathes of brown and sepia conjure an absorbing environment that recalls the luxurious life, light and motion of a teeming forest. The work’s stunning scale creates an all-encompassing textural and chromatic world, its three panels stretching over six metres in width. Brown describes 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 content, I actually need to give very little now and it’s seen as erotic or hinting at erotic’ (C. Brown in D. Peck, ‘New York Minute: Cecily Brown,’ AnOther, 14 September 2012). Executed in 2011, the work dates from the maturity of her practice, her technique at its eloquent best. ‘I’m more assured now,’ she says. ‘Until the mid-thirties it was frustrating, nothing came out as I wanted; the hard thing was to get the paint to go on how I wanted it to, it looked all right when it went on but it got very caked, like cement. Now, when I reach for the right colour at exactly the right moment, that’s when I know it’s going well, that’s the feeling I’m striving for. Guston said it beautifully: it’s painting itself. It’s difficult to talk about without making it sound too spiritual: you’re in an open state’ (C. Brown, quoted in J. Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT: Cecily Brown,’ Financial Times, 10 June 2016).
Emerging as a painter in 1990s London, Brown’s practice stood in lush 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 its reflection of every subtle nuance of the artist’s touch. Brown uses the full potential of the palette, and demonstrates an intimate understanding of colour: the beguiling sensations of the paintwork always take precedence over any obvious imagery, and whatever motif Brown holds in her mind while she paints remains elusive, often disappearing and reappearing as the painting progresses. ‘I think that painting is a kind of alchemy,’ she has said; ‘the paint is transformed into image, and hopefully paint and image transform themselves into a third and new thing ... I want to catch something in the act of becoming something else’ (C. Brown, quoted in Cecily Brown, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, New York 2008, p. 16). Above all, her works embrace the enigmatic, thriving off the fact that painting does not need to provide a coherent reading, its forms instead drawing out active visual connections within the mind of the viewer. ‘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).
Relishing the vital tension between representation and direct sensory experience, Brown’s work expresses a captivation with the history of painting. As she has explained, ‘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). Early in her career Brown’s figuration dealt with distinctly carnal subject matter, complementing her medium’s intrinsically tantalising sensual power. De Kooning once claimed that flesh is the reason oil paint was invented, and Brown readily agrees. ‘I think when I was doing a lot of sexual paintings,’ she 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,’ The Observer, 12 June 2005). As her confidence and command of her medium has grown, she has increasingly drawn inspiration from the wider world and other artistic sources. Old Masters such as Bosch and Brueghel have always been a source of admiration for Brown: her paintings speak with their language and seduce with their lessons, even as she unfolds to fresh frontiers of abstraction. Indeed, to distinguish between the abstract and the figurative is ultimately unhelpful. Brown’s works transcend such boundaries and exist as both at once, infused with the vigour of conflict and irresolution. In its stunning scale and virtuoso execution, the triumphant panorama of The Sick Leaves embodies all the thrill, joy and mystery of its medium. ‘I take all my cues from the paint,’ she says, ‘so it’s a total back and forth between my will and the painting directing what to do next’ (C. Brown in D. Peck, ‘New York Minute: Cecily Brown,’ AnOther, 14 September 2012).