Executed in 2001, the extraordinary detail and pristine surface of I do not feel embarrassed at attempting to express sadness and loneliness represents an exquisite example of Glenn Brown’s mastery of oil paint and his incisive method of appropriation. Perched atop slender stems, a vertiginous floral arrangement rises in a plenitude of infinitesimal brushstrokes painted in hues of dusky rose pink and writhing green curlicues. With premeditated finesse Brown paints each curling petal, his approach an evocative reflection on the role of flower painting in the history of art. Yet, this is no ordinary vase of flowers, and from out of the foliage appear two hooded eyes, neither human nor animal, staring unblinkingly at the viewer. Based upon Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase of Flowers, 1890, in I do not feel embarrassed… Brown translates Van Gogh’s rich impasto and lavish brushstrokes into an immaculate trompe l’oeil illusion, flattened to a silken finish with the artist’s use of traditional varnish. This technical virtuosity is characteristic of Brown’s precise practice, which trawls through the canons of art history, drawing inspiration from celebrated examples by Rembrandt, Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Frank Auerbach. Replacing Van Gogh’s expressive stroke with a pristine surface of meticulous hyper-reality, Brown revels in the manipulation and deconstruction of the celebrated painter’s approach. By transforming the textured surface of the original, the artist challenges Modernism’s demand 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. I looked at the history of painting and couldn’t see why expression should be aligned only with the brush mark’ (G. Brown, quoted in S. Folie, ‘Interview: Glenn Brown’ in A.M. Gingeras (ed.) ‘Dear Painter, paint me...’: Painting the Figure since late Picabia, Paris 2002, p. 87).
Invoking a long history of floral still life, from seventeenth century Dutch master, Ambrosius Bosschaert’s extravagant flower paintings, to Van Gogh’s own expressive Sunflowers, 1888, in I do not feel embarrassed… Brown meditates on the fragility of life and the nature of mortality through the age-old metaphor of blossoming flowers. Occupying a central role in the history of still life due to their ephemeral quality, paintings of flowers have traditionally been considered a form of momento mori. Even the name, nature morte evokes the process of decay to which cut flowers must always be subject. Unlike the optimistic blooms painted by Van Gogh during the summer he spent at Auvers-sur-Oise, Brown’s arrangement eschews Van Gogh’s naturalistic palette, highlighted by bursts of orange-red and soft peach tones, for a putrid chromatic scheme of queasy pastels against an ashen background. Cast in continuous shadow, Brown abandons the verdant colours of the natural world, deconstructing the jubilant hope that Van Gogh associated with the jewel tones and abundance of flower painting. For Brown, whose oeuvre demonstrates a morbid curiosity with life and death, Van Gogh’s flowers represent a twisted paradox in which bountiful life meets the tragedy of the artist’s premature death: like Van Gogh himself, who would go on to take his own life in the months after completing Vase of Fowers, these flowers are poised on the brink of death, their transient beauty nothing more than a prophecy of their inevitable expiration.
In I do not feel embarrassed… what at first appears to be an innocuous bouquet of flowers unearths a startling set of eyes. Both terrifying and terrified, through the concealed features Brown’s portrait takes on a chilling quality which plays on the tension that exits between seduction and repulsion. Invoking the genre of the grotesque, the lengthy title of Brown’s work takes on a new significance, imbuing the image with a sense of the abject and personifying the sumptuous arrangement. With its metamorphic theme, the work expresses Brown’s admiration for the seventeenth-century Mannerist painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose anamorphic transformations are a source of fascination. Playing on the human fear of the unknown, I do not feel embarrassed… contemplates Van Gogh’s turbulent psychological state at the time of his painting’s creation. In this way, the title begs a human connection to the painting’s subject. Of his evocative titles Brown has said, ‘the titles are often trying to be embarrassingly direct, and vulgar in their directness. I don’t think that the painting is less direct, but I don’t want the paintings to be illustrative’ (G. Brown, quoted in L. MacRitchie, ‘Interview: Glenn Brown’, in Art in America, April 2009, p. 99). Through his inscriptions Brown goes beyond the evacuated quotation of an original image, reconstructing the composition and ultimately imbuing it with a new sense of narrative. In his skillful handling of paint and with his conceptual ingenuity grounded in postmodern critical theory, the present work is transposed rather than appropriated. ‘I’m rather like Dr Frankenstein’, Brown has said, ‘constructing paintings out of the residue or dead parts of other artists’ work. I hope to create a sense of strangeness by bringing together examples of the way the best historic and modern-day artists have depicted their personal sense of the world. I see their worlds from multiple or schizophrenic perspectives, through all their eyes’ (G. Brown, quoted in R. Steiner, ‘Interview with Glenn Brown’, in Glenn Brown, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2004, p. 96).