A pyrotechnic expanse of color and movement, Carnival and Lent exemplifies Cecily Brown’s matchless command of oil paint. Inspired by Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 1559 masterpiece The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, its 2.5-meter canvas creates an all-engulfing textural and chromatic world, with hints at figure and form caught in swirls, tangles and marbled blurs of pigment. Flashes of heads, limbs and bodies churn and skirmish through flurries of fragmented scenery, dissolving and cohering from one moment to the next. The work’s warm terracottas, visceral reds and cooler touches of lavender and teal echo the palette of Brueghel’s painting, detonating his bird’s-eye crowd scene into an immersive, fleshy scape of abstracted energy. Brueghel depicts Prince Carnival and Lady Lent—personifications of drunken appetite versus spiritual discipline—in a farcical joust, splitting his composition between the patrons of the inn and church that flank a Netherlandish town square. His work teems with earthy humor, playful detail and intricate symbolism. Its conflict between ribald abandon and monastic restraint makes it an apt figure for Brown’s practice, which draws vivid life from the tension between abstraction and figuration. In Carnival and Lent’s lush bacchanal of hues it might seem clear that carnival has won out, but the work is nonetheless held together by Brown’s keen eye for structure: her paintings are unresolved battles between chaos and control, between body and mind, and between painter and paint itself. “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 quoted in D. Peck, “New York Minute: Cecily Brown”, AnOther, September 14, 2012).
When she emerged as a painter in 1990s London, Brown’s practice stood in lavish contrast to the more conceptual stance of her British contemporaries. In 1994 she moved to New York, where she still lives and works today. While charged with a vigor entirely her own, Brown’s brushwork inherits much from the work of American Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning. De Kooning once claimed that flesh is the reason oil paint was invented, and Brown readily agrees: early in her career her figuration dealt with distinctly carnal subject matter, complementing the medium’s voluptuous power. She 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 quoted in D. Peck, ibid.). Carnival and Lent is electric with this submerged physicality, its tussling ribbons of sanguine color recalling the raw, muscular anatomies of Chaim Soutine or Francis Bacon.
As her fluency has grown, Brown has moved away from direct figural themes and increasingly drawn inspiration from other artistic precedents. Brueghel is just one of the Old Masters she admires: she also works from Rubens, Goya, Bosch, Hogarth, Delacroix and others, channeling their energy and movement into drawings and watercolors as well as luminous, turbulent large-scale abstractions like Carnival and Lent. Her paintings speak their language and seduce with their lessons, even as her brushwork explores new frontiers of pure haptic pleasure. “The more I look at paintings,” she says, “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). She has spoken of “slowing down” the viewer in front of her own works, which—much like Brueghel’s Wimmelbilder, or “busy pictures”—cannot be apprehended in an instant, but stir, unfold and reveal their riches with extended viewing.
Brown’s work continues to celebrate qualities that are unique to oil paint alone, rejoicing in its tactility and its reflection of every subtle nuance of the artist’s touch. The medium’s beguiling sensations take precedence over any obvious imagery, and whatever motif Brown holds in her mind while she paints remains elusive, often slipping away and reappearing as the painting progresses. “I think that painting is a kind of alchemy,” she explains; “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, Brown’s works embrace this sense of ambiguity, feasting on the unfixed, the metamorphic and the in-between. In Carnival and Lent—like Brueghel before her—she has it both ways, using paint in all its fluid glory to conjure a rich pageant of human experience.