Cecily Brown’s art made me feel like I was trapped in an episode of “The Twilight Zone” getting some ironic comeuppance. Everything I loved in painting—the rich colors, the lush figures, the slippery abstraction, the dense, terrifying Bruegel and Soutine compositions—was thrown into the meat grinder of her style , it is more difficult to swallow after coming out. In her mid-career survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Cecily Brown: Death and the Handmaiden,” including some four dozen works produced between 1997 and 2022, you’ll find enough delicacies to confirm she was a An awesome artist. You’ll also find a surprising number of images that look chaotic or distracted, as if they’re starting over again with every stroke. There’s something inescapable about good abstraction – look closely and you’ll see the hidden anatomy that holds things together. “BFF” (2006-15) is one of Brown’s typically large and powerful paintings, and the longer I spent with it, the more informal its red and pink tendrils felt. At first glance it is a flashy piece of work, but, as in Willem de Kooning’s best work, exemplified by one of Brown’s heroes, the first sight is only the beginning . In too many of Brown’s paintings, it’s the main course.
But let’s take a step back. Not all the way to Bruegel – just into the nineties, when Brown was a young graduate of the Slade School of Art in London and British art was in the midst of its Renaissance. It was a disturbing, over-the-top era, a decade of Marc Quinn’s frozen blood sculptures, Tracy Emin’s sweaty beds and Damien Hirst’s rotting cow heads. What do Brown’s paintings have in common with these things? First, it’s a flamboyant, distinctly British scent: her breakthrough exhibition, which opened in 1997, shortly after she moved to New York, featured images of rabbits breeding, bleeding, or both. Second, gallery-goers like the instinct of a freak show.Met exhibition organized by Ian Alteveer highlights Brown’s relationship with vanitystill life, and memento mori Genre: Somber images of mirrors, fruit, and skulls designed to remind viewers that death is always the final word. I’ve heard complaints that the topic is too narrow and fails to do Brown justice, even though it showcases one of her strengths, her lively cruelty. Among her abstractions one finds dead animals, rotting teeth and squirming corpses. The images are often gruesome but never moral. There’s a sex appeal to their shock value, so what may seem like a warning at first may later feel like an invitation.
Is it a compliment to say Brown is trying to do the impossible? Her art seems to blend the fiery abstract expressionism with the cool, grotesque appropriation of her European predecessors. Part of the appeal of the genre, at least to critics, is that it wears its implications on its sleeve—Father of the Bride (1999), for example, makes no secret of its debt to de Kooning , and the little mouth in Untitled (Vanity) (2005) is pure Francis Bacon. (The connection to Bacon runs deep; in her twenties, Brown learned that her biological father was the critic David Sylvester, an early champion of Bacon. Let the psychoanalysis begin.) Hyperbole The quote is not wrong, a lot of great art goes back and forth between abstraction. and image; problems arise when Brown must reconcile these two modes. Most of the time, she can’t. In the monumental Bruegelian Carnival and Lent (2006-8), bodies and spots rub against each other, dulling any edge they might themselves have had. There are so many bright, aimless patches of pink and peach among the randomly swaying faces and buildings—it all amounts to a bunch of sparks pretending to explode.
But the most convincing argument for why the painting is less effective comes from the painter himself. In the exhibition catalogue, Brown engages in a fascinating conversation with curator Adam Eaker, in which she extols another of Soutine’s major influences, Still Life with Rays. She immediately points out its greatness: the ray’s “eyes” are “punctuation marks that draw you in and freeze the action.” I couldn’t have said it better myself – Soutine knew how to give his most chaotic images a center, propelling his audience from one strange place to another so that the horror creeps up on them, forever It won’t disappear. Like many of Brown’s other ambitious large-scale works, Carnival and Lent wants too much of a good thing: every square inch is like an eye begging for attention. Soutine guides you deftly, while Brown pulls you in a million directions at once.
This explains a lot of things, starting with how difficult it is to remember what Brown’s paintings looked like. (After seeing the show three times, I find that I can imagine fragments, but rarely whole dishes—a torso here, a yellow there.) Which also explains why the more restrained art on display is the most engaging . The Only Game in Town (1998) is a twist on the trope of the woman in the mirror, respecting the old horror movie principle that monsters are scariest when you don’t see much of them. There is no doubt another horrific mouth at the center of the image, but most of the area is a pale, sickly yellow that intensifies the mood without overpowering it. It’s the most overtly Baconian painting in the show, and one of the most Brownian—for once, she doesn’t seem to be rummaging through a pile of influences. There’s a sense of maddening captivity that’s a constant in her best work, as if ninety-five percent of it was frozen in some nasty, amber-like substance, and soon the other five will also be frozen.
Even here, however, the entire picture fails to impress you. The mouth does. George Orwell’s depiction of Dickens was twofold for Brown: she had decaying buildings but wonderful gargoyles. That’s why I tend to prefer her sparse, more seriously arranged compositions – where the gargoyles have a better chance of standing out – and why, if given a choice between big brown and small brown, I’d go with small every time thing. It’s firmer and the color is brighter. Imagine how much dizzying mystery she derives from the chartreuse in “Maid in Landscape” (2021): The painting is only two feet wide but makes most of the larger works in the show feel slight and Inconsistent. Epics have nothing to do with size.
Brown’s work is remarkably consistent, in a different sense, of course. From the moment she graduated from the Slade, she seemed to know what kind of art she wanted to create, and for some time she has been one of the best-selling artists in the world. Painters often had to wait until they were dead, or nearly dead, before they could have an exhibition at the Met. Brown was only in his fifties. Going forward, sudden changes in style or subject matter seem unlikely – but success in art lies as much in embracing novelty as in tinkering with the same materials. If this exhibition is any indication, Brown has spent a lot of time over the past three years photographing small, cramped images of people in small, cramped spaces. I think they’re great, just in a frustrating way. The body twitches violently, half-dissolving in boring colors. The paintings aren’t a response to the pandemic, exactly (Brown began creating similar works back in 2013), but they convey an all-too-familiar feeling: choking on one’s own tail, living like A dull, feeble drop of water. Sometimes the most powerful answers to disaster are the same old stuff, fueled by deeper emotions. Sometimes when an artist spends years trying to accomplish the impossible, she ends up with something really good. ❖