'I’m attracted to the Gothic notion of a figure trapped somewhere between the psyche of the model, the artist, the photographer, the printing process and me’ (G. Brown, quoted in S. Kent, Shark-Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90s, London 1994, p. 10).
'The naked flesh of the original model may be long dead, but that just aids the imagination Fragonard, Auerbach and Rembrandt painted the living. Their flesh has become paint so I paint paint. The paint is the crusty residue left after the relationship between the artist and his model is over. It is all that there is left of real love, so I paint that’ (G. Brown, quoted in A. Gingeras, ‘Guilty: The Work of Glenn Brown’, Glenn Brown, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2004, p. 17).
A remarkable large-scale portrait, Glenn Brown’s Led Zeppelin, 2005, presents a beautiful woman taken from the canon of art history. Through delicate strokes of swirling paint, her porcelain features appear almost alive. The life-size scale of the portrait envelopes the viewer with such power and detail that her reality becomes almost plausible, as if she might suddenly emerge from the painting. Cast against the title of the most celebrated rock band in history who created gothic anthems for the 1970s, Brown takes Francesco del Cairo’s painting Lucretia from 1635 as his point of departure. Lifted from the historical legends of early Rome, the rape of Lucretia was a popular secular subject in seventeenth-century Italian painting. Traditionally a metaphor for chastity, Lucretia’s upturned eyes reflect moral purity, her exposed breasts evidence of the violence she experienced. Recast for a contemporary audience, the violation of Lucretia functions as an allegory for Brown’s own artistic appropriations. Just as the virtuous woman has been debased, Brown carries out his own unique process of artistic plunder, taking the original to its furthest point of association. In Led Zeppelin, the body itself is elongated, illuminated from within, glowing against the shorn silk backdrop. Adding exquisite texture to the glass-like surface, Brown replaces the classical sfumato with painstakingly executed whirls of paint. The details here have taken on a hallucinatory hyper-precision, leaping out with exaggerated focus, anticipating the psychedelic swirls of Brown’s paintings after Fragonard or Rembrandt such as in Death Disco, 2004, and Joseph Beuys, 2001, respectively. In its technical virtuosity and extraordinary conceptual premise, Led Zeppelin stands as a remarkable example of Brown’s painting practice, and was exhibited in the artist’s solo exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 2009.
Continuing the legacy of Appropriation Art established by Marcel Duchamp, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince, where artists projected existing images into new contexts, Brown updates this strategy for the 21st century. Brown goes beyond the evacuated quotation of an original image, reconstructing the composition, subjecting it to distortion, 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 poised between humorous parody and grotesque caricature. Setting this work in the high/low tradition of pop artists like Lichtenstein and Warhol, Brown seeks to recompose imagery sourced from art history text books, and reinvent the design to create fresh compositions. Gleaming with art-historical recognition, Brown’s numerous layers of representation create a sense of homage and pastiche. Quoting and transforming del Cairo’s composition, Brown sets up a natural dichotomy between the small-scale book illustration, the original Old Master painting, and his Contemporary revisiting. Here, the use of highly keyed colour as a tool to highlight the layers of reproduction represents a point of departure for Brown’s unique and instantly recognisable imprint. By inserting his own interpretation of the canonized paintings, Brown creates contemporary artefacts of a bygone era. In this sense, the anguished martyrdom of the present work becomes all the more appropriate as a motif, perfectly demonstrating Brown’s statement that, ‘I’m attracted to the Gothic notion of a figure trapped somewhere between the psyche of the model, the artist, the photographer, the printing process and me’ (G. Brown, quoted in S. Kent, Shark-Infested Waters: The Saatchi Collection of British Art in the 90s, London 1994, p. 10).
By faithfully painting each inch of the canvas with his own unique, hyperrealist fair, in a characteristically dialectical move Brown gives credibility to his own fantastical imagination. Brown’s complex investigations into surface and texture first became apparent in his earliest works inspired by Frank Auerbach in the early 1990s, where Brown painstakingly recreated the appearance of the Modern British master’s densely impastoed paintings in remarkably smooth surfaces. By 2000, Brown had begun placing subjects transplanted from Auerbach’s art against fat anachronistic backgrounds, the blurred edges echoing a sense of departure. Manipulating his compositions, Brown heightened the crispness and sharpness of various areas while blurring others, severing technique from the traditionally expressive theatrics of composition. This artful sense of displacement is heightened in Led Zeppelin. As if the inverse of his Auerbach explorations, here the artist focuses on the remarkably glassy surface so admired in classical Old Master painting. Speaking of this interest, the artist has remarked, ‘The naked flesh of the original model may be long dead, but that just aids the imagination. Fragonard, Auerbach and Rembrandt painted the living. Their flesh has become paint so I paint paint. The paint is the crusty residue left after the relationship between the artist and his model is over. It is all that there is left of real love, so I paint that’ (G. Brown, quoted in A. Gingeras, ‘Guilty: The Work of Glenn Brown’, Glenn Brown, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2004, p. 17). In Led Zeppelin, the surface of the painting is finessed and fattened through the artist’s use of carefully gessoed panels, layer upon layer of fluid underpainting and traditional varnish. Under this silken sheen, the figure appears alive, the vivid, writhing surface heightened by the delicate marbling. It creates a powerful illusion, denying the viewer the tangible satisfaction of what his or her eye might suggest.
Through its title sampled from the legendary band, we gain insight into Brown’s multiple inspirations. ‘I go through life remembering past experiences and feeling emotions that make me want to sing a particular song. Essentially I create a daily soundtrack to my life by stringing together ordinary pieces of music in my mind. Songs very often come into my head when I look at my paintings. Music places me emotionally in a particular moment, at some point other people have had similar feelings and experiences. They are songs about being sad, about being rejected in love, and about other very strong emotions. They trigger a realization that you are part of the world, and yet an individual within it’ (G. Brown, quoted in R. Steiner, ‘Interviewed With Glenn Brown,’ in Glenn Brown, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2004, p. 96-97). Just as the strands of songs playing in his studio infuses into Brown’s practice, creating a unique environment in which his multiple sources exist in harmony, his paintings set up a structure which adroitly mixes art history and popular culture to sublime effect. Reflective in his evocative title, Brown suggests ‘The connections between my paintings and my titles are not always obvious but they are never random... I am trying to puzzle viewers. The work is supposed to stick in their heads and make them ask why. Again, that is the base with good music; something, perhaps a sense of disharmony or miss alignment of timing, catches your attention but you often cannot articulate why. I think it is the same with a painting: it has to catch you by being enigmatic and intriguing – whether it is through colour or meaning, beauty or ugliness, a celebration of life or the devastation of death’ (G. Brown, quoted in R. Steiner, ‘Interviewed With Glenn Brown,’ in Glenn Brown, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 2004, p. 100). Just as the heroine finds herself distinctively disconnected from her origins, so too does the cult band find itself disconnected from its Gothic rock associations. In this way, Brown’s title adds a further layer of the uncanny: a linguistic tragicomic complement to the esoteric quality of his work.