A swirling, writhing atmosphere of gestural dashes of paint fluidly merges with pulsating colors and sensual imagery in this Cecily Brown painting. She welcomes the traditional purpose of painting into her contemporary language through her unique, impassioned technique. Brown's combination of improvisation and control as well as figuration and abstraction come together both eloquently and elusively in Untitled 2011-2013.
While not immediately apparent, the subject of Untitled becomes clear upon further exploration of the gestural brushstrokes and deconstructed figures. The mysterious images require both a physical and mental interaction with the viewers, inviting them to study the painting from multiple perspectives, delving further into the details and overall picture. A human need to make sense of a situation arises, and is ultimately denied, leaving the viewer in a state of indefinite contemplation. Brown uses a contemporary language to blend all past traditions of painting into a new vision in the sensuous richness and materiality thrusting from the canvas. She forces an intellectual contemplation as the viewer looks more closely in the futile attempt to decipher figure from ground as the visceral fragments heave and mutate in constant movement, merging human and animal, flesh and meat, life and death. Brown's canvas crawls with flesh and meat, hostile at first glance; but, upon further speculation, one realizes that this sensual and corporeal skin is an element shared by humans and animals alike. In this manner of merging animalistic instinct with human emotion, the artist manages to form a connection between human experience and the natural world at-large, home to all creatures.
Brown's aesthetic kaleidoscope manages not only to capture glimpses of a narrative but concurrently captivates the attention of the viewer who is invited to attempt an interpretation of her illusion. A central collision of colors morphs into a carcass of raw meat, the focal point of a butcher shop scene. Max Beckmann-like, expressionistic faces crowd the background, a bustle of city life infusing energy to the formal qualities of the painting. The relationship between live, human flesh and the red, fresh animal meat collide in a perversion of temptation. Brown ironically paints the more sensually-considered human skin with the same beautiful, electric tones as the repellant concept of the uncooked carcass. Untitled further cultivates her artistic dialogue through Brown's love for the inherent characteristics of oil paint and its capacity to so naturally depict flesh. Willem de Kooning once deemed that flesh was the main purpose for the invention of oil painting, and Brown readily agrees, describing 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 contents, I actually need to give very little now and it's seen as erotic or hinting at erotic" (C. Brown speaking in "New York Minute: Cecily Brown," AnOther, 14 September 2012). Brown's paintings, past and present, seductively interact with her audience, not simply in a sexual manner, but also through the sensual tendencies of the oil paint and the pleasurable act of painting itself.
Brown's palette allows for a lusciously glistening, beautiful tumult of chaotic deconstruction. The facial expressions, the raw meat, the butcher, the store window - each emerges and disappears, nearly forming a complete image before elusively vanishing into visceral fragments once more. She refuses to take on a label of figurative or abstract painting, for she instead concentrates on creating a physical experience of mental processes and sensations that generate a painting.
Born in London in 1969, Brown studied at the Slade School of Fine Art before moving to New York in the mid-1990s, where she continues to live and work. Rather than join the Young British Art scene, the young artist immersed herself in Abstract Expressionism and the resurgence of painting, which she subverted to her own purposes. She never begins a painting with a final product in mind, rather the surface becomes a multi-layered illusion built up of multiple changes and re-workings to her canvas as her ideas evolve and her dialogue with the art work develops. Yet her work is unique in that it is not pure abstraction or solely focused on a narrative. Of her process Brown has said, "I take all my cues from the paint, so it's this total back-and-forth between my will and the painting directing what to do next. The painting has a completely different idea than I do about what it should be Things just naturally break down and become more abstract. When things get too abstract, I definitely feel like I want to bring the figure back. There is a line that I'm always striving for that's not half-way between figuration and abstraction, it is both It's almost like pulling a moment of clarity in the middle of all the chaos" (C. Brown speaking in "New York Minute: Cecily Brown," AnOther, 14 September 2012, www.anothermag.com/current/view/2192/Cecily_Brown, access date 15-Mar-2013).
While Brown faces the world of contemporary art with her individual vision, she admits to being heavily influenced by the masters of art history, with inspiration directly originating from Francis Bacon, Hieronymus Bosch, Willem de Kooning, James Ensor, Lucian Freud, Francisco de Goya, Peter Paul Rubens, and more. Brown's Untitled clearly derives insight from Cham Soutine's Le boeuf écorché, painted circa 1924, a direct source for her painting. Soutine's own reverence for Old Masters is reflected in his subject matter and painterly style, perhaps paying homage to Rembrandt's celebrated painting, The Slaughtered Ox, 1655. Brown plays on Soutine's existentialist message of the sacrifice of an animal, killed to feed others, a blend of intense beauty and horror of this splayed and mutilated beast. Both paintings touch on the classical trope of memento mori, relaying the significance of mortality through the subject matter.
Brown plays with a narrative and deeper message, yet her talent as a contemporary artist allows the painting to return to her unique dialogue with the present. Through the canvas, she converses with the Old Masters and demonstrates what painting means to the world today, conveying a message about art and its connection to humankind and life as a whole. Yet, her art work also signifies the resurgence of the tradition of painting, be it through figure or abstraction or the sensations of human experience. "The place I'm interested in is where the mind goes when it's trying to make up for what isn't there" (C. Brown, quoted in J. Tumlir, The Paintings of Cecily Brown, pp. 5-10, Cecily Brown, ex. Cat., New York & Los Angeles, 2002, p. 9).