The new work of New York-based artist Cecily Brown (b.1969) features a medley of grey, red, orange and earth colours applied with vigorous gestures to canvases of many different sizes. Initially, the explicitly sexual content of her pictures attracted attention; more recently, she has increasingly reduced the image to its essentials. Shifting between figuration and abstraction, she uses each approach to reinforce the other, viewing them not as two separate worlds, but as closely interrelated facets of the art of painting. Although this winters show at the GEM museum of contemporary art
is Cecily Browns first ever solo exhibition in the Netherlands, in America she has for years been regarded as a leading artist of our day. Her work features in top collections like those of the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and Tate Modern in London.
Brown grew up in England. She is the daughter of author Shena Mackay and well-known British art critic David Sylvester. Her father played a particularly important part in her early life as an artist, fostering her love of art by introducing her to the works of Francis Bacon and Picasso. Browns current sources of inspiration include old masters like Rubens, Poussin and Titian, as well as modern artists like Bacon, De Kooning and Arshile Gorky. With the first she shares her love of the human body and with the second her taste for large canvases and an expressive style. In England she felt out of place at the start of her career by the sensationalism of the Young British Artists (including Damien Hirst), who were then the movers and shakers in the British art world. There seemed to be little place for her kind of painting. In 1996 she moved to New York, where she found that precisely because she was an outsider: young, female and foreign she could win rapid success in the male-dominated world of abstract expressionism. Where the abstract expressionism of Pollock and De Kooning is rough and macho, Browns is sensual and sophisticated.
Browns work is all about seeing and is a stirring celebration of painting. Her paintings show bodies or landscapes apparently dissolving in an atmospheric maelstrom of colour and paint. In her early paintings, when she was still depicting attention-grabbing nudes in explicitly sexual poses, she was interested not just in offering an image, a story, for viewers to look at, but also in the feeling of discomfort that the image might evoke in the viewer. The feeling of being a voyeur: of seeing something that should really be private. In recent years, however, her work has become increasingly abstract, lending a new dimension to the act of visual attention in which she seeks to engage the viewer. Rather than the content of the painting, it is now the painterly method itself that is intended to hold the viewers attention. Her latest paintings are about the instant of seeing and the physical action of painting. They are about the way colours and gestures create independent visual worlds encompassing mere hints of figuration. In her 2010 painting Based on a True Story, for example, it is almost impossible to make out the subject. All that the viewer can distinguish is the face of a woman lying on her back. The remainder of the scene is so vaguely represented that attention no longer focuses on what is depicted, but on how it has been done.