‘The paintings are like doors flung open suddenly to reveal something shocking. Because they are so energetic they might also be viewed as moments of a movie whose sudden arrest causes the mind’s eye to trip over itself in its own voracity, tangling in dense webs of coloured light, striving to mark order of intense and disordered sensations’
A voluptuous expanse of colour and texture stretching nearly three metres in width, Night Passage is a sophisticated early work by Cecily Brown. Painted in 1999, it demonstrates the sensual command of pigment that has come to define her practice. An orgiastic riot of impasto fills the picture plane, alive with the physical joy of painting. The composition shifts between abstract and figurative registers, conjuring seductive human forms that fade in and out of focus. Rendered in the warm spectrum of yellow and red tones that defined Brown’s paintings of this period, the present work demonstrates the artist’s move towards her signature large-scale canvases, imbued with suggestive flickers of bodies and flesh. Dispensing with the sexualised ‘bunny’ motifs of her earlier practice, Brown began to plunder the history of painting, drawing inspiration from Bosch, Bruegel, Titian, Delacroix, Degas, Picasso, Bacon and the Abstract Expressionists. On canvas, these influences collide to create rich, sensory tableaux, replete with subliminal figurative drama. Brown often titles her works after films: the present work invokes the 1957 Western Night Passage, starring James Stewart. Whilst stripped of all narrative references, the surface is nonetheless cinematic in scope, redolent of moving images on a plasma screen. ‘I take all my cues from the paint’, Brown explains, ‘so it’s a total back and forth between my will and the painting directing what to do next’ (C. Brown in Peck, ‘New York Minute: Cecily Brown’, AnOther, 14 September 2012).
In 1994, shortly after graduating from the Slade School of Fine Art, Brown moved from London to New York. Distancing herself both aesthetically and geographically from the subversive, conceptual practices of the Young British Artist (YBA) scene, she championed painting at a time when many had considered the medium long dead. Following Willem de Kooning’s mantra that ‘flesh was the reason oil paint was invented’, her dense, visceral surfaces were charged with eroticism. By 1999, the explicit sexuality of her ‘bunny’ paintings had given way to a more abstract sense of carnal pleasure, relating as much to the artist’s sensuous handling of pigment as to her subject matter. As Dore Ashton writes, ‘allusions to human bodies scatter across the canvas in a profusion of attitudes and details, staying close to the surface in a kind of allover composition typical of certain Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1940s and 1950s. Here, Brown began her personal game of hide-and-seek, or, as the Japanese landscape artists said centuries ago, hide-and-reveal. By means of heavily loaded brush marks, fragments of colour, and barely defined human organs, Brown aimed to engage the viewer’s eye completely, and for more than an instant. Patience is required. (It is not surprising that Brown as an aficionado of jigsaw puzzles, which, she says, sharpen her sense for detail.) For the next couple of years, Brown’s paintings remained, for the most part, compendia of human sexual attitudes, often fragmented and almost always rendered in a palette Brown associates with flesh – yellows, ochres, pinks, and reds’ (D. Ashton, ‘Cecily Brown En Route’, in E. Wingate et al (eds.), Cecily Brown, New York 2008, p. 16).
Despite their insistence on the tactile, material qualities of paint, Brown’s works also owe much to the dynamics of film. Playing with themes of fantasy and illusion, their vast, volatile surfaces conjure both the grandeur and the instability of the silver screen. Many of Brown’s works from the late 1990s, including the present, allude to classic films in their titles: Suddenly Last Summer, East of Eden, Dog Day Afternoon, Trouble in Paradise and Interlude. Robert Evrén likens her canvases to sudden plot twists: ‘The paintings are like doors flung open suddenly to reveal something shocking’, he writes. ‘Because they are so energetic they might also be viewed as moments of a movie whose sudden arrest causes the mind’s eye to trip over itself in its own voracity, tangling in dense webs of coloured light, striving to mark order of intense and disordered sensations’ (R. Evrén, quoted in Cecily Brown, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, Rome, 2011, p. 1). Though Brown does not conceive her works in representational terms, she has spoken of her desire to capture an abstract sense of transition, realisation and revelation. ‘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).