Fractured Fairytales: The Concealed Pastorals of Cecily Brown

I first saw the large and colorful figurative abstract paintings of Cecily Brown (b. 1969 London) in 2003 at the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., and I was enthralled by their painterly sensuality and feminine ambition, voluptuousness and exuberance, all words commonly used to described the British-born painter's work. Working through compositional problems associated with the de Kooning tradition and emulating its frenetic energy, Brown, who has long lived and worked in New York, brings to the canvas a bawdy post-feminist touch of porn and more than a wink to the Old Masters. The result is often museum-worthy exhibitions of busy colorful orgiastic canvases that reveal or conceal unmentionable body parts and actions. In earlier works, bunny rabbits saw some action. As would be expected with an artist that can paint with her breasts, Ms. Brown can really hold the room.

When I walked through the galleries at Gagosian to see Brown's many new paintings and several smaller ones, I was hoping for a fresh jolt of excitement. While a few of the large works hold attention, both in the Skulldiver and Sarn Bane series, and two or three I would call exciting, the exhibition embraces too many smaller works that seem more like warm-up exercises. When her fusion of bad boy expressionism and grrrrl figurative sensuality works properly, the multiple gestures stop just short of chaos and wretched excess. In some of the new works she's gone too far. They're overworked to the extent that in the future she may have to either push for full abstraction or pull way back. This isn't true for all the pieces, and I was most impressed with the spare elegance of one of the largest paintings that graces its own wall. Here she's pulled back and gone for an almost calligraphic approach, just indicating a sublime semiotic domesticity, albeit one with a skull, with looser and sparser wide strokes of greens, pinks, and mauves that invite a multitude of suggestive readings. She's best when she makes a play for psychological investigations through what's apparently a nearly exhausting physical process.

As for my personal interpretations of these works, I'm too inclined by academic training to read the visual evidence in paintings such as Brown's for the zeitgeist of the times. After weeks of seeing images of wreckage and mayhem on television, whether due to a car bombing, a hurricane, or the falling financial markets, Brown's paintings, with their brush strokes piling on top of one another (but no longer in that sexy way), mirror broader societal messages of fracture, uncertainly, and collision. I love her use of paint and imaging the pleasures she must take in her work, but for me, obfuscation just isn't fun anymore. What I'm hearing today, in fact, is that we're in need of a lot more transparency.

Cecily Brown
September 20 - October 25, 2008
555 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10011

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