Glenn Brown (b. 1966)
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Glenn Brown (b. 1966)

Suffer Well

Glenn Brown (b. 1966)
Suffer Well
signed, titled twice and dated 'Glenn Brown 'Suffer Well' 2007' (on the reverse)
oil on panel
62 x 47¼in. (157.5 x 120cm.)
Painted in 2007
Gagosian Gallery, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2007.
New York, Gagosian Gallery, Glenn Brown, 2007.
Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Glenn Brown, 2009-10 (illustrated in colour, p. 129). This exhibition later travelled to Turin, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and Budapest, Ludwig Museum.
Paris, Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, Vanité. Mort, que me veux-tu?, 2010.
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Lot Essay

'The black square in the corner of Suffer Well is there to irritate. You keep looking at it only to reject it in favour of the skull. It's a cruel joke on death and nothingness, perhaps'

(Brown, quoted in 'Laurence Sillars in Conversation with Glenn Brown', Liverpool 2009, p.142).

Executed in 2007, the extraordinary detail and painterly devotion of Suffer Well represents an outstanding and large-scale example of Glenn Brown's mastery of oil paint. Existing somewhere between life and death, Brown's giant skeleton, pulses with a plenitude of fine brush strokes in red, ochre, mustard yellow, black and blue. Set against a romantic and untainted turquoise sky, the skeleton grins through its decayed smile, inclining its head forward as if sensitive to the responses it elicits. It is a powerful image that confounds its flat, smoothly painted surface with a certain dynamism; each small coloured detail bristling like flesh as it slowly decomposes and deteriorates. The skeleton appears sensible to the title of its composition, a 2006 recording of the same title by Depeche Mode that laments, 'where were you when I fell from grace? Frozen heart...Still I believe. I just hang on. Suffer well'. As Brown has described, 'I like the idea of painting a decrepit or melancholic skull that could also have the sensibility of dance music' (Brown, quoted in M. Bracewell, 'Concerning the Art of Glenn Brown', Glenn Brown: Three Exhibitions, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2009, p. 70). Suffer Well marks a bold departure from the history of portraiture, subverting the original associations of the genre including its purported access to the inner life of its often famous subjects.

Brown successfully produces an unorthodox and hermetic image that only reluctantly offers up associations. His painting is anchored in the early van Gogh, Skull with Burning Cigarette (1885-1886), in which a lit cigarette dangles suggestively from the mouth of a similarly postured skeleton. In doing so, Brown looks beyond the objects of the real world to the canons of art history in search of his subject matter. Arguably the godfather of Expressionism, van Gogh regarded the brushstroke as the ultimate depiction of human feeling and character. In Suffer Well however, Brown revels in the manipulation and deconstruction of the master's approach, flattening the expressive brush strokes to a point where his work is puzzlingly free of impasto. His approach is born out of the history of appropriation art in the late 1970s and 80s, where artists such as Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman assumed existing images and projected them into a different context. Brown updates this strategy for the 21st century. Instead of appropriating, he rather transposes van Gogh's familiar image, transforming it through a process of manual manipulation and rotation, lending it a strangely alien aura. He removes elements such as the burning cigarette and adds other striking associations; the dense black upper left hand corner of the painting recalling Sigmar Polke's work Higher Powers Command: Paint the Upper Right Corner Black! (1969). Suffer Well mirrors Polke's original gesture, moving it to the opposite side of the canvas in an allusion to the artist's comic flouting of the art establishment. With the use of Polke's black abstract motif, Brown draws the attention of the viewer from the centre of the canvas to the edge and back again.

Brown began his investigations in the early 1990s by creating exact and realistic reproductions of science fiction scenes and expressionistic CoBrA and Auerbach paintings. In these works, Brown created painterly versions of the originals mediated through their mechanical reproductions in photographs and exhibition catalogues. As his career has progressed however, these dual aspects have become more detached from their moorings and amalgamated with other references. In Suffer Well, Brown marries the turquoise monochrome background of his science fiction genre with the expressionistic foreground of van Gogh's 1885-1886, Skull with Burning Cigarette. In the process of doing so, Brown subjects the work to a process of intense manual distortion, marking a technical departure for the artist. Here, as with his collection of paintings inspired by the Rococo master Jean-Honor Fragonard, Brown pushes, pulls and distorts the painting, taking it to its furthest point of association. He operates a type of artistic cannibalism, consuming his original source and digesting its history, nuance and construction. Onto the blank canvas, he projects the digested elements along with his own formal and iconographic process.

In Suffer Well Brown transposes van Gogh's image, removing the cigarette and rotating it through a few degrees so that the jaunty detachment of the skeleton is transformed into a more melancholy posture. The artist also transforms the original's use of expressionistic brush marks, challenging modernism's demands to reveal the construction of a work. As Brown once suggested, 'I prefer the invisible hand of the dematerialised artist, making dematerialised fake brush marks [author's emphasis]. I looked at the history of painting and couldn't see why expression should be aligned only with the brush mark' (Brown, interview with S. Folie in A.M. Gingeras (ed.) 'Dear Painter, paint me...: Painting the Figure since late Picabia' Paris 2002, pp. 86-89). In Suffer Well, Brown's bravura of brushstrokes appear to create a brilliant impasto painting with thick decisive lines, yet on closer inspection the surface is flat, gleaming and perfectly smooth, refined with a staggering assembly of beautiful yet eerily coloured swirling lines. Where van Gogh's expressionistic style of painting introduced the cult of the brushstroke and the cult of the artist, Brown denies any physical indicator of his own authorship: 'It could be said that with the flatness of my paint, I am denying my physical presence' (Brown, interview with R. Steiner, London, 2004).

Suffer Well is a spectacular painting, which draws the viewer in through its technical achievement and painterly finesse. It is a poignant memento mori that is in one breath heartbreakingly melancholic and in the other deeply humorous, horrifying yet enticing, somehow reminiscent of Freddy Krueger's Nightmare on Elm Street. With Brown's subversive use of art historical subject matter, bold colour and precise technique, he creates a visually arresting work that challenges the preconceptions of modern painting. The skeleton, with its forward posture and disinterested gaze piques the viewer's attention, projecting a chilling sense of the strange and yet familiar. As Brown himself described: 'I like my paintings to have one foot in the grave, as it were, and to be not quite of this world' (Brown, quoted in M. Bracewell 'Concerning the Art of Glenn Brown', Glenn Brown: Three Exhibitions, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2009, p.70).

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