A tumultuous, exuberant canvas rife with art historical allusions, deft brushwork, and covert figuration, Cecily Brown’s Bedlam Vacation (2005) is a stellar example of the artist’s work and shows her signature approach to the convergence of painterly brushwork and figuration. “The boundaries of painting excite me,” Brown noted about her practice, “You’ve got the same old materials—just oils and a canvas—and you’re trying to do something that’s been done for centuries… I have always wanted to make paintings that are impossible to walk past, paintings that grab and hold your attention. The more you look at them, the more satisfying they become for the viewer. The more time you give to the painting, the more you get back” (C. Brown, “I take things too far when painting,” The Guardian, September 20, 2009). Bedlam Vacation is an exceptional example of this reward that Brown’s work offers up upon extended looking and an investigation into the very heart of the work. Images appear and retreat, figures make themselves known, and all the while a swirl of paint and color keeps viewers entranced by the artist’s hand.
Extending to the very edges of the canvas, Brown’s signature impasto lays out a scene dripping with fleshy pinks, blood red, and acid green. The lower left portion is given over to a particularly sensuous shade of ruby, while the upper right dissipates into a smoky purple and gray. Throughout the center of the composition, thickly rendered figures appear and disintegrate into brushstrokes of orange and brown. In the center, a group of human forms is recognizable by the distinct outline of several legs in peach and black. The abundance of milky rose and cream hues suggests that some of the figures are nude, firmly placing Bedlam Vacation in the artist’s signature iconography. Brown spoke to this predilection, noting, “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,” Observer, June 12, 2005). Her interest in the place of the nude in art history and where it careens into contemporary views on sexuality is evident in her handling of the subject and translates into a provocative, heady treatment of the paint on canvas. The rich layers of oil build upon each other until distorted bodies appear amid the chaos and pull one’s attention deeper into the tableau.
What at first might appear to be a purely abstract, non-representational canvas instead reveals itself as a rather riotous scene. Brown has a knack for depicting events and figures in a manner that hovers on the edge of visual recognition. Johanna Drucker noted about the artist’s work in the early 2000s, “These works flicker at the hallucinatory edge between figural representation and gestural abstraction... sustain[ing] a condition of indeterminate specificity, a state of prolonged tension on the edge of final definition, deferring closure” (J. Drucker, “Erotic Method”, Cecily Brown: Paintings 2003-2006, New York, 2006, p. 5). The paintings refuse to resolve themselves in the viewer’s mind or their field of vision. Instead, works like Bedlam Vacation offer a wealth of information to continuously parse and explore.
Born in London, Brown was thrust into the art world at an early age. Her father was the art critic David Sylvester, and she would often go to exhibitions with his friend Francis Bacon. The influence of Bacon’s own artworks on Brown’s later career can be keenly felt in her sumptuous, visceral application of paint. Studying at the Slade School of Art in the 1990s, Brown distanced herself from the overt conceptualism of her YBA contemporaries in favor of expressive oil painting and representative subjects. She noted, “Figures are the only thing that I’ve ever painted. 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). Allying herself with the tradition of large, heavily-populated scenes so common throughout the history of art, Brown looks back at those artists that have come before but firmly plants herself at the forefront of contemporary painting. Pushing the limits of how and what can be depicted by a frenzy of color, paint, and form, the artist reveals that she is keenly aware of her predecessors but has an undying urge to experiment and evolve.
This interest in the expressive application of paint and a tendency toward representation has drawn comparisons to the work of Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning, especially after Brown moved to New York and distanced herself both conceptually and physically from the YBA trend in the United Kingdom. Writing about an exhibition of the artist’s paintings at Deitch Projects, Eleanor Heartney posited, “…one thing can’t be denied: Brown can paint. Her canvases recall the slashing brushstrokes of de Kooning, the meaty flesh of Soutine and the dissolving forms of Francis Bacon,” (E. Heartney, “Cecily Brown: High Society at Deitch Projects,” Art in America, June 1998, p. 131). Brown’s work takes the practice of painting to new levels as she loads her canvases with visual intrigue and forces her viewers to become absorbed in the composition. Her signature approach to the portrayal of human activity is instilled with the ceaseless activity of contemporary life while also paying homage to the most traditional of artistic media.