A lush, pastoral landscape blurring into abstraction, Cecily Brown’s The Quarrel (2004) teems with life and effervescent colour, shot through with a pulsating emotional intensity. Realised in vast scale, Brown offers us a vision of nature rendered in vividly opulent, almost hyperreal greens and earth tones, her handling of oil paint at once delicate, subtle and thrillingly visceral. As swathes of green plunge and swirl above, fleshy dark pinks and browns churn in the lower half of the canvas, while figurative forms and abstract pools of colour struggle for supremacy; a tree trunk appears to rise up in the centre-left of the frame, and suggestions of human forms emerge miraculously from the mud to its right. Within this tumult of colour, executed with typical bravura, Brown’s mastery of light is also made fully apparent: the gorgeous, interleaved greens of the canopy are gloriously illuminated, brightening and yellowing as they are lit, seemingly, from all sides. The painting feels suffused with a magical, unreal sensation of light.
Amid the luscious colour and gestural brushwork, snatches of narrative and pictorial reference also seem to emerge from the painting. With its verdant greens, idyllic light and fleshy sketches of human forms, Brown locates her scene in a tradition of sensual landscape painting that travels back through modernist and Post-Impressionist scenes like Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre and Cézanne’s series of ‘Bather’ paintings and back to classical pastoral painting, or Renaissance depictions of Eden. However, as the title suggests, undercurrents of conflict also course through the painting, the writhing forms to the right of the painting seeming to grapple and wrestle with each other, halfway between violence and eroticism. Brown’s juxtaposition of luscious, almost pre-lapsarian landscape with anxious human strife speaks to representations of the ‘first quarrels’ of the Bible between Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel; indeed, the indistinct smudges of figures engaging in ambiguous, primal physical contact distantly recall the tactile rough and tumble of Cain and Abel paintings by the likes of Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens.
Born in London though now based in New York, Brown was raised in auspicious intellectual and artistic circles: the daughter of art critic David Sylvester and novelist Shena Mackay, she used to visit exhibitions with her father’s friend Francis Bacon. Bacon would go on to be an important influence over the artist: despite studying at the Slade School of Art during the 1990s, Brown eschewed the conceptualism of the YBA generation for an intensely sensuous style of oil painting. Indeed like Bacon – or de Kooning, perhaps her other greatest influence – the appetites, passions and impulses of the human body remain an important feature of the artist’s work, even at its most abstract; she shares in their ability to denature and dissolve the human form into areas of expressionistic brushwork and colour, laced with anxiety and desire. “Figures are the only thing that I’ve ever painted,” she has said, “I’m interested in the human need or desire to represent itself. I’m fascinated with human narcissism and obsessions with bodies.” (C. Brown, in O. D. Odita, ‘Cecily Brown: Goya, Vogue, and the Politics of Abstraction’, Flash Art 33, no. 21, Nov-Dec 2000, p. 74).