“I want the experience of looking at [my art] to be very much like the experience of walking through the world” – Cecily Brown
Having studied at London's Slade School of Art in the early 1990s, Cecily Brown’s uninhibited painterly style and interest in figuration stood out from many of her contemporaries, namely the highly-conceptual students that would later become known as Young British Artists (YBAs). In contrast to their more ironic and iconoclastic concerns, Brown approached her work with an unquestioning sincerity rooted in a profound respect for the history of painting. “The boundaries of painting excite me,” she noted in 2009. “You've got the same old materials — just oils and a canvas — and you're trying to do something that's been done for centuries. And yet, within those limits, you have to make something new or exciting for yourself as well as other people” (C. Brown, quoted in “Cecily Brown: I take things too far when painting”, The Guardian, 20 September 2009). By reinvestigating one of the most traditional artistic media, Brown inserts herself into conversation with a litany of artists, past and present.
Born in London in 1969, Brown moved to New York in the mid-1990s. She quickly established herself as a key figure in the resurgence of painting during that decade, pursuing the gestural style for which she has become widely acclaimed. Although always taking their points of departure from figurative sources, Brown's canvases verge on abstraction. There seems to be an explicit bond between her almost vibrating and pulsating brushstrokes and the often highly erotic subject matter. While her compositions may appear spontaneous, her paintings typically evolve slowly, stroke by stroke, and she often keeps several works in progress at any given time. The viewing experience is similarly prolonged, requiring an active and patient engagement with the entire canvas. Her surfaces range from smooth to thick and muscular, often including both in the same passage, and have a sensuous, corporeal presence.
Brown's obsessive attention to the physical properties of her medium sparks a dialogue with the history of painting. The artist cites a wide range of Old Masters as influences and also draws inspiration from more recent painters, such as Francis Bacon, Arshile Gorky and Philip Guston. Her satiated canvases may recall Abstract Expressionism, but, more so than gesturing through spontaneous marks and splashes, Brown's compositions translate the typically latent erotic content of the earlier masters' work into a deliberate and exquisitely nuanced pictorial language with many possible meanings. Brown’s work investigates the slippery boundary between abstraction and figuration, creating seductive images filled with hidden secrets.
The Park in the Dark (2012) is a richly layered canvas of threateningly dark undertones quieted by the appealing softness of thick brushstrokes. Staying true to the Abstract Realism that confronts the viewer at first glance, Brown's painting recalls a sense of Willem de Kooning's painterly oeuvre, acknowledging her debt to the history of painting and Abstract Expressionism in general. Though Brown’s influences include Titian, Bruegel, Delacroix and Rubens, she is most frequently associated with the strong painterly aesthetic of the Abstract Expressionist artists who dominated the art world in the mid-20th century. The density and movement of The Park in the Dark is exemplary of Brown’s shift from the overtly sexual nature of her earlier Neo-Expressionist work into further abstraction. Perhaps a landscape painting or still-life, the work opens the meaning of its subject matter and conveys emotion through its urgency. The present work is a wonderful example of Brown’s signature approach to the portrayal of human activity, which remains constant throughout her practice. Relishing the tension between representation and direct sensory experience, Brown’s works embrace the enigmatic, thriving off the fact that painting does not need to provide a coherent reading. Instead, she aims to invite active visual connections within the mind of the viewer. “The place I’m interested in,” she has said, “is where the mind goes when it’s trying to make up for what isn’t there” (C. Brown, quoted in R. Evrén, "A Dispatch from the Tropic of Flesh", Cecily Brown, exh. cat. Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2000, p. 8). Brown has continually evolved her practice, pushing the boundaries of contemporary painting and cementing her place as a deeply influential artist.