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Jesus; The Living Dead (after ‘Jupiter Cloudscape’ 1982 by Adolf Schaller)

Jesus; The Living Dead (after ‘Jupiter Cloudscape’ 1982 by Adolf Schaller)
signed and dated ‘Glenn Brown 97-98’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
86 5/8 x 128 1/2in. (220 x 326.3cm.)
Painted in 1997-1998
Patrick Painter Gallery, Los Angeles.
Private Collection, UK.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
'In conversation: Glenn Brown and Jacky Klein', in Gagosian Quarterly, 28 April 2021 (illustrated in colour).
Los Angeles, Patrick Painter, Glenn Brown, 1998.
London, Jerwood Gallery, Glenn Brown, 1999.
Bignan, Domain de Kerguéhennec, Glenn Brown, 2000, pp. 69 and 80-81, no. GB 46 (installation view illustrated, pp. 4 and 8; illustrated in colour, p. 33).
Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Glenn Brown, 2009, pp. 142 and 169 (illustrated in colour, p. 59; detail illustrated in colour, p. 59). This exhibition later travelled to Turin, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo and Budapest, Ludwig Muzeum.
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Lot Essay

Shown in a number of the artist’s major exhibitions, including a travelling retrospective that opened at Tate Liverpool in 2009, Jesus; The Living Dead (after ‘Jupiter Cloudscape’ 1982 by Adolf Schaller) (1997-1998) is a spectacular work from Glenn Brown’s series of science-fiction paintings. Spanning over three metres in width, it presents an astounding, celestial panorama of clouds and sky. Banks, drifts and mountains of vapour unfold beneath a glassy blue firmament, swirling with neon hues of azure, burgundy and gold. Plush, fleshy vortexes hover over infernal gulfs of bloodshot cloud, and a wall of sheer red fog rears up like a tidal wave to the left. Plunging to a vast pictorial distance, the scene has all the grandeur of a great history painting, and echoes the apocalyptic visions of the Victorian Romantic painter John Martin. Indeed, its saturated blues were inspired by Martin’s The Plains of Heaven (1851-1853), the second painting in his The Last Judgment triptych, which Brown saw in the Tate’s collection. These were once described as ‘The most sublime and extraordinary pictures in the world’ (S. Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, London 1990, p. 76). Brown’s painting, however, is in fact copied, enlarged and modified from a reproduction of another work entirely: a picture of the imagined stratosphere of Jupiter, painted in 1982 by the astronomical artist Adolf Schaller. With his trademark meticulous, photorealist approach, Brown has painted every wisp of cloud in scintillating detail, using seamless, translucent glazes to build a psychedelic complexity of colour. The awesome vista draws us irresistibly in, only for its perfect, impenetrable surface to deflect our gaze.

For three decades, Brown has devoted himself to destabilising received ideas about authenticity, depth and meaning in art. He assesses the history of painting from a postmodern perspective, appropriating and restaging images that have been mediated through reproduction, and questioning long-standing faiths in the medium’s inherent expressive power. His early practice centred around disquieting simulations of Modernist mark-making—such as the gestural, impastoed brushwork of Frank Auerbach and Karel Appel—in paintings that share the alien, uncanny flatness of the present work. All traces of vitality and self-expression were voided from their virtuosic, calculatedly soulless surfaces. After talking to his tutor Michael Craig-Martin about how to take his work further, Brown resolved to start making photorealist versions of already-photorealist paintings. He began with the Surrealist works of Salvador Dalí, which eventually led him to the realms of 1970s and 1980s sci-fi art. ‘Salvador Dalí was depicting his dreams—the work is meant to be reality, but a reality we can’t see’, Brown explains. ‘Science fiction images are like Surrealism in that way, they’re a dreamed reality but rendered in a way that’s meant to be realist. It was a more interesting take on the conceptual copy’ (G. Brown in conversation with H. Kunzru, Gagosian Quarterly, Spring 2018). These sci-fi images, moreover, with their origins outside the fine-art canon and their echoes of 19th-century Romanticism, allowed for provocative play with contemporary painterly norms of taste, sincerity and sentiment. The present work churns with different art-historical currents, melting into a hybrid vision of liquid, uncertain status.

There is no human life above the clouds, and Brown paints in a godless universe. The present work, he says, ‘was always perceived as the view of Jesus from the cross thinking: “My Lord why hast Thou forsaken me”’ (G. Brown, quoted in S. Hepworth, ‘Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me’, Glenn Brown, exh. cat. Domaine de Kerguéhennec, Bignan 2000, p. 69). Nonetheless, the achievements of Western painting, as Brown sees it, are largely indebted to art created in the name of religion. He deliberately weaves this heritage into his work, treading a fine line between subversion and homage. As well as John Martin, he has claimed that the present painting was influenced by the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) and William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1849-54), which both feature heightened tones and nuanced chromatic glazing. Hunt painted his picture, which depicts the figure of Jesus, under what he believed to be divine command: he spent several years perfecting its glowing light, which he felt unable to complete until his travels took him to Bethlehem where he saw the perfect sunrise. Unburdened by such pious concerns, Brown is free to draw upon Hunt’s colours as a purely visual tool, using them to turn up the temperature of Adolf Schaller’s cloudscape. By working only from printed reproductions of his sources, he distances himself further from their original context. If Brown’s incandescent hues are haunted by art-historical precedent, they have lost any aura of spiritual subjectivity. ‘I am not trying to fill the void, which is left by a lack of faith’, he says. ‘I am trying to decorate a world that is genuinely without faith’ (G. Brown, quoted in S. Hepworth, ibid., p. 70).

John Martin’s grandiose scenes, hugely popular among the public of his time, were derided by critics such as John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray and John Constable. Trafficking in earnest Christian themes and elaborate symbolism, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, too, have been seen by many as kitsch and overwrought. For Brown, who is interested in the extremities of historical form, this only increases their appeal. His science-fiction paintings likewise lavish attention on imagery usually seen as beyond the margins of good taste: Adolf Schaller painted his cloudscape, a commission for Carl Sagan’s popular television series Cosmos, outside the fine-art context entirely. ‘A lot of [gallery-goers] have great difficulty seeing them as so-called “high-art”’, Brown says of his sci-fi subjects. ‘If these paintings had the same palette and were abstract they would have a totally different audience, but because they have these fantastical images in them, much of that audience is totally switched off. They won’t read them on an abstract emotional level because they find the figuration too low culture. I love it when that happens’ (G. Brown, quoted in S. Hepworth, ibid., p. 67). The American post-Pop artist Jeff Koons, who transforms the gaudiest products of popular culture into sublime, otherworldly objects of worship, is an inspiration for Brown in this regard. Like the gleaming, seductive surface of one of Koons’ monumental balloon animals, the present painting’s pristine precision reflects Brown’s total devotion to his craft. As skilled a technician as he is an iconoclast, he finds new purpose in painting even as he seems to herald its oblivion.

Enthralled by its marvellous surface, we are at once spellbound by Brown’s painting and confounded by its eerie desolation. We are marooned above a distant planet’s skies, alone in a vast, unfeeling and unfathomable universe. Brown’s clear-eyed view of painting’s afterlife, however, has taken both viewer and artist to strange and magnificent new frontiers: the painter ultimately reveals himself as a Romantic at heart, in awe not at the glories of earthly creation, but at the possibilities, splendours and tangled meanings of his medium. ‘Working long hours, generally late at night is intrinsic to the subject’, Brown says. ‘You have different feelings at 6 o’clock in the morning, alone. I become far more romanticised about the whole notion of being an artist because they become very much about this detached world, the science fiction paintings especially … it’s more or less where I am, floating about in space. I might as well be because I’ve detached myself from the world to do this painting’ (G. Brown in conversation with M. Spinelli, Glenn Brown, exh. cat. Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham 1996, p. 7).

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