A vast, erotically-charged vision spanning nearly three metres in width, Cecily Brown’s Girl Trouble (1999) is a bacchanal of fiery hues, enigmatic figural forms and rich, gestural abstraction. Rendered with intuitive, sensual brushstrokes, it demonstrates the orgiastic painterly language for which she is celebrated. In the lower right-hand corner, a nude woman gazes at her reflection in a mirror; above her, a second figure emerges from a tangle of wispy red and orange strands. Paint coalesces to suggest limbs, flesh and undulating curves, which intermingle and collide before fading back into obscurity. Like glowing flames, Brown’s pigment burns with incandescent fervour, alive with seductive, tactile textures. Allusively titled after a romantic comedy from Hollywood’s Golden Age – a touchstone for the artist during the late 1990s – Girl Trouble is a cornucopian painting, inviting the viewer to lose themselves in its intricate depths. Though suffused with carnal suggestion, Brown leaves the interactions between her characters opaque, allowing her painterly pageant to be interpreted at will. ‘The paintings are like doors flung open suddenly to reveal something shocking’, writes Robert Evrén. ‘Because they are so energetic they might also be viewed as moments of a movie whose sudden arrest causes the mind’s eye to trip over itself in its own voracity, tangling in dense webs of coloured light, striving to mark order of intense and disordered sensations’ (R. Evrén, quoted in Cecily Brown, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, Rome, 2011, p. 1).
Brown’s uninhibited and ravenous aesthetic was an outlier during her studies at the Slade School of Art in London. In contrast to the biting, iconoclastic tendencies of her classmates, many of whom would later become known as the Young British Artists (YBAs), Brown maintained an earnest interest in figuration born out of a studied regard for the history of painting. In the canvases of Rubens, Titian and others, she found sumptuous and striking figural groupings rendered in bold colour: ‘I have always been drawn to dramatic subjects’, she has explained (C. Brown interviewed by A. Elkann, Alain Elkann Interviews, 24 February 2019, https://www.alainelkanninterviews.com/cecily-brown/ [accessed 21 January 2020]). Her paintings evince an enduring fascination with the human form, in particular the canonical representation of the nude. In using a mirror to reflect a nude, for instance, Girl Trouble can be placed in a lineage that includes both Diego Velázquez’s sumptuous Rokeby Venus (1647-51) and Pablo Picasso’s The Mirror (1932). The exposed muscles of the standing figure are redolent of the male nudes of the great French romantic Eugène Delacroix, who depicted idealised, heroic bodies with a dramatic sense of motion. Brown’s love for the Old Masters is unironic, but in her refusal to shy away from overt sexuality, her canvases are a provocative continuation of this lineage.
Leaving London for New York, first as an exchange student in 1992 and then permanently a few years later, provided Brown with new visual stimulation. ‘SoHo was still very alive with galleries’, she recalls, ‘and there was loads of good art, stuff that I hadn’t seen before, like Koons, Richard Prince, and Mike Kelley. I couldn’t believe how much art there was everywhere’ (C. Brown quoted in R. Wetzler, ‘“Now I can steal from myself as much as from other artists” – an interview with Cecily Brown’, Apollo, 3 November 2018). However, it was in the canvases of the Abstract Expressionists and especially those by Willem de Kooning that Brown found a means of liberating the nude from its traditional representation. ‘Looking at [his paintings] so closely’, she explained, ‘I feel like a student again in that I realise what I’ve been after is to combine a similar level of freedom with the incredible control that results in such tight, amazing paintings’ (C. Brown quoted in ‘Willem De Kooning: Conversation with Cecily Brown’, Border Crossings, vol. 121, February 2012, n. p.). The two share an affinity for depicting flesh; indeed, for both, skin is as much a subject as a ground for chromatic discovery. Like de Kooning’s rapacious figures who are never fully fixed in place, Brown’s canvases, too, exhibit a sense of flux. Governed by their own gravity, her paintings seem to be constantly expanding and forever unresolvable. Like an astral burst, Girl Trouble, too, is spellbinding, as the tactile paint reaches for a corporeal physicality.