In Cecily Brown’s work what initially appears like a mess is in fact beautifully crafted chaos. In this show it is an intelligent disguising of figures and skulls within deep brash layers of interweaving brush strokes.
Aujourd’hui Rose, 2005, 194.6 x 139.7 cm, is a less developed exemplar of this captivating style. It’s restrained and refined when compared to the ten superseding miniature canvasses that are a variation on the visual theme of Aujourd’hui Rose.
Cecily is among five artists in the exhibition, (also: Hans Josephsohn, Shaun McDowell, Katy Moran and Maaika Schooral), of which the press release described as sharing common ground not only within the thematic exploration of reality, but in style: ‘[they] take on the challenge of creating works that fall somewhere between figuration and abstraction.’ Of the ten paintings (entitled #19, #86, #97, #60, #11, #96, #20, #95, #98 and #22 - as viewed from left to right) I noticed three were figurative immediately, but the remainder within ten seconds I had dismissed abstract and void.
Aujourd’hui Rose beckoned me due to this equilibrium in style between figuration and abstraction. Even though the clichéd subject – a skull, compiled of figures, impressed me little. I considered Dali’s both elegant and eerie memento mori Ballerina in a Death’s Head, 1939, as strikingly similar in content, but I couldn’t dismiss Brown’s work as trite for some reason. Another artistic cousin of this motif would be Damien Hirst’s The Blue Paintings from his farcical No Love Lost (see article December 2009). I delighted in the irony that my plan was to visit another Hirst show earlier in the day for relish and as a provision of redeeming grace for the artist. But I was acceptingly thankful when the White Cube at Hoxton Square, was in fact closed.
So why is Brown’s work not trite after all? One of the most attractive elements of painting is surprise, which I would define as positive revelations, and not unwanted shocks, when, for example, out of nothing something appears surreptitiously and suddenly. In this series of paintings, the surprise is that all are depicting skulls morphed into/out of ladies – so exacting do they abruptly appear to your realised vision that these ladies are almost definitely identifiable as from the 19th century, and that in complete juxtaposition to our association with death, they are full of life, exchanging and gathering gossip in many instances. They are surprisingly deliberate.
The beauty is in how this technique could and does become incredibly powerful to the ignorant viewer. These, which scan a period of three years from 2006-2009, and come from a minimum of 98 paintings, I can only conclude are all trials and errors of the technique used in Aujourd’hui Rose. That said it is possible that she ventured elsewhere in her concerns in the meantime, however this need to correct, re-create and perfect is obvious in the regular re-committing to this composition. The ten are varied in brushstroke, moisture application and palette range. In colour, the irony of life in contrast to death remains present and most appear to allude to a season, and seasons mark transitions in life.
‘Visible Invisible: Against the Security of the Real’ is open until 7 February 2010. The Parasol Unit is a small gallery that advertises itself as a foundation for contemporary art, in N1 London.