‘The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn’ (O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891).
Executed in 2002, the refined surface and painterly bravura of Kill Yourself represents an exquisite example of Glenn Brown’s mastery of oil paint and his incisive method of appropriation. From the slender neck of an intricately rendered chinoiserie vase an abundance of fleshy, sensuous roses emerge in a plenitude of fine brush strokes painted in hues of deep ochre, amber and yellow, the surface on which they rest strewn with fallen foliage. With extraordinary and vivid precision, Brown paints each petal in breathtaking psychedelic swirls, his approach an evocative refection on the role of flower painting in the history of art, his technique a subversion of the genre. At first appearing to employ the rich impasto and vigorous brushwork of an Impressionist painting, the surface of Kill Yourself is in fact a painstaking trompe l’oeil illusion created through the artist’s use of carefully gessoed panels, layer upon layer of fluid underpainting and 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. Imitating Renoir at the height of his artistic practice, Kill Yourself impersonates the Impressionist master’s Vase de fleurs (Roses dans un vase), circa 1890, bringing to life an apparently lost image, included only in black and white in the Catalogue raisonné. At first Brown’s translation seems an exact replica of the original, however, on closer look the thick swathes of oil paint rendered in spontaneous impressionistic brush strokes that characterise Renoir’s renowned flower paintings are replaced with a pristine surface of meticulous hyper-reality. Brown revels in the manipulation and deconstruction of the Impressionist master’s approach, fattening the expressive brush strokes to a point where his work is puzzlingly free of impasto. By transforming the textured surface of the original, the artist challenges 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. 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 expressive Sunflowers, 1888, in Kill Yourself Brown meditates on the fragility of life and the nature of mortality through the age-old metaphor of roses. 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. For Brown, whose oeuvre demonstrates a morbid curiosity with life and death, the paradox inherent in painting roses in full bloom is reflected in the title of the work, Kill Yourself. Painted in the same year as On Hearing of the Death of my Mother, 2002, and based on the same Renoir vase of flowers, these morose titles echo the poignant subject matter. In stark contrast to the warmth of Renoir’s original in which the luxurious arrangement of magnificent roses is evocative of female beauty, in Brown’s Kill Yourself the opulent flowers are set within an ominous, smoke-laden atmosphere, their transient beauty under threat of expiration from the menacing curls of translucent vapour. Subverting the genre of floral still life in which blooms are traditionally painted in their prime, Brown presents his roses as already in the throes of death, each wisp of smoke emphasising their fate, their mortality powerfully perceptible; their fullness is nothing more than an illusion that through Brown’s transformations is about to go up in smoke. Almost surrealistically ripe, Brown presents his roses poised on the brink of death, suggesting that this decadence is but one step from entropy. Suspended between parody and caricature, Kill Yourself is a tragicomic memento mori. 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.
Continuing the legacy of Appropriation Art established in the late 1970s and 1980s by Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, where artists projected existing images into new contexts, Brown updates this strategy for the twenty-first century. Brown has commented: ‘I love the notion of appropriation, and the fact that we can’t escape appropriation. All of the knowledge of all the art we’ve ever seen is with us when we paint, or when I paint’ (G. Brown, quoted in L. MacRitchie, ‘Interview: Glenn Brown’, in Art in America, April 2009, p. 96). Going beyond the evacuated quotation of an original image, the artist reconstructs the composition, subjecting it to distortions, 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 transposes rather than appropriates, submitting Renoir’s Vase de fleurs to an array of modifications that endow it with a strangely alien aura: ‘I’m rather like Dr Frankenstein, 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).