‘I think that painting is a kind of alchemy … 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’
‘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’
With its voluptuous riot of colour and texture spread over two-and-a-half metres of canvas, The Homecoming exemplifies Cecily Brown’s sensual command of oil paint. Amidst a near-fluorescent bacchanal of orange, green, yellow and blue, a looming, flesh-toned figure comes into focus. Working in tactile layers with impassioned, energetic brushstrokes, Brown relishes the fluid, viscous properties of the medium, conjuring flickering human traces through abstract painterly dynamism. Executed in 2015, the work coincides with the artist’s return from New York to her native England – a move hinted at by its title. Coming to prominence in 1990s London, Brown distanced herself aesthetically and geographically from her Young British Artist contemporaries; she has spoken of ‘my split personality, not being at home anywhere’ (C. Brown, quoted in J. Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT: Cecily Brown’, Financial Times, 10 June 2016). In keeping with this notion, her visual language draws inspiration from a wide variety of precedents: from Bosch, Bruegel, Titian and Delacroix, to Picasso, Bacon and the Abstract Expressionists. Following de Kooning’s mantra that ‘flesh was the reason oil paint was invented’, Brown’s handling of pigment is charged with carnal eroticism. She describes the medium 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’ (C. Brown, in D. Peck, ‘New York Minute: Cecily Brown,’ AnOther, 14 September 2012). In the present work, the figure is brought to the fore with a renewed sense of clarity, excavated from layers of historical allusion and abstract technique.
Emerging as an artist at a time when painting seemed to have exhausted its potential, Brown has always been fascinated by the transformative properties of the medium. ‘I think painting is a kind of alchemy’, she has explained; ‘… 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 C. Mac Giolla Léith, ‘Painting Sensations’, in Cecily Brown: Paintings, exh. cat., Modern Art Oxford, 2005, p. 55). For Brown, paint is an inherently sensory, physical medium that comes to life in the absence of fully conscious thought. At the same time, she delights in the wide variety of undisclosed sources that infuse her work with tantalising glimpses of figurative reality. As Johanna Drucker writes, ‘The higher order of compositional organization in Brown’s work references the grand tradition of theatrical landscapes filled with figures allegorical, historical, or observed. Their imagery calls forth terms that stream from the antique – gambol and dalliance, virtue and pursuit, bucolic revels and pastoral delights – a kind of visual punning play on scenes of Arcadia … She engages with her sources as if in a lover’s provocation to another touch, another exchange, excitement rising with response at the level of the mark, swatch, line of the brush drawn through the wet paint’ (J. Drucker, ‘Erotic Method’, in Cecily Brown: Paintings 2003-2006, Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2005, p. 9). In The Homecoming, the suggestive interplay between figuration and abstraction is brought to a climactic crescendo, alive with the haptic joy of paint.