Abstract Critical

A Wrong Turn? : Cecily Brown at Gagosian

Written by Luke Elwes

This August sees the launch of the abstractcritical web-site’s Writer-in-Residence scheme.  Under this new initiative we are asking two writers to contribute three shorter pieces at monthly intervals over a three month period, on subjects or issues that can be either of their own choosing or related broadly to site’s the theme for that particular month. To kick things off painter/writer Luke Elwes takes a distinctly unconvinced line on the Cicely Brown painting’s recently on show at Gagosian Davies Street while in a week or so Edinburgh-based abstract painter Alan Shipway will be considering Cragg, Kapoor et al at the Edinburgh Festival…


Who is to say, when a painter adopts the language of abstraction, its well-worn mannerisms, that what they produce is not abstract?  Who has the authority to judge, to define the parameters that separate true from false practice?  What divides the dedicated purist from those who dabble at the margins (particularly when dabbling could be read as the playful subversion of high modernism)?

Perhaps all one can ask is that there is a program of sorts, one that marks a continuity of purpose or a linear progression in a painter’s work; but this becomes problematic when you witness an artist jumping the tracks, as Bomberg, Guston and many others have done. What looks like a determined path later on is often an uncertain journey at the time.  It is the same problem posed by Cecily Brown’s new paintings, by the notionally figurative painter trespassing on abstract territory. Celebrated early on for the way she carried the gestural mark making of Abstract Expressionism into the territory of female sexuality, a decade on she appears to have lost her way.

CECILY BROWN Have You Not Known, Have You Not Heard, 2011 Oil on panel Triptych, each panel 83 x 49 inches 210.8 x 124.5cm © Cecily Brown

Here and there she replays her familiar psychosexual dramas, the turbulent brushwork fusing naked flesh with fecund nature. ‘Lost Satyr’ for example reads like the frenzied aftermath of  ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe’, while the large triptych (‘Have you not known, have you not heard’, 2011) exudes lusty energy, despite the scattered body parts being washed away in a torrent of scarlet and chocolate brown paint.  But elsewhere the new work looks flaccid, with marks lost in an abstract welter that conceals a lack of decision, as though simply by loosely arranging gestural brush strokes they will magically resolve themselves into postmodern images. ‘Grave Suave Singing Silk’ (2011) consists of indeterminate patches of grey, black and purple, and without any graphic clarity gives the eye nothing to alight on.  If the suggestive passages of flesh are removed, what are we left to look at?  The paint needs either to describe something or else assume a life of its own.  As it is, they amount to abstraction as the absence of figuration, a lazy solution delivered to deadening effect.

CECILY BROWN The Torment of the Tablecloth, 2010 Gouache, pencil, watercolor, and ink on paper 12 1/8 x 16 1/8 inches 30.8 x 41cm © Cecily Brown

If there is any sense of progress, it is in two smaller works, which are stronger for being more slowly realised.  ‘The Fox and Geese’, 2008-11, is both more cryptic and staccato in its rhythm of dots and dashes, in its frenzied tracks of predator and prey. ‘The Tribulations of the Tablecloth’, 2006-11, is also less clotted, more nuanced.  All vestige of figuration has gone, leaving areas of paintwork to collect and dissolve on a pale field. It is I think the only image that lives up to her wish to balance formal complexity with visual chaos.

This may, if one is generous, represent a transitional moment in her work.  But mostly it’s a mess, an abstract turn that reads as a wrong turn.  How much better to have resolved the issue before showing the work.  As it is, her wish to ‘avoid using the terms figuration and abstraction because I’ve always tried to have it both ways’ has led her up a blind ally.  If she was serious about developing a distinctly corporeal abstract language of her own, she should have waited. One is left with the impression that she (or her gallery) is in too much of a rush to give it serious thought. What a shame.

Cecily Brown showed at Gagosian Gallery, Davies Street, London, June 8 – July 29, 2011

  1. Brian Edmonds said…

    I tend to agree with Stu here. I cannot tell much from a laptop screen but it does seem to be a transitional period for Ms. Brown. How else is she to find her way or begin anew? There seems to be a flash of Gorky in the work that I did not see before. It would be interesting to know exactly who she has been studying. The earlier work was more about shock and awe. Who knows, we may look back years from now and discover she was on the right track all along. I would like to see a current show of Cotton, Essenhigh, Loeb, Currin, etc. from the late 90′s to see how these artist have grown or regressed.

  2. geoff catlow said…

    tough old game, art. Criticism often hurts, but artists need it. I would hesitate to say Cecily has taken a wrong turn, because I haven’t seen the work in the flesh as it were. But , hey! its a Gagosion show, she has to fulfill. If it was me I would be convincing myself that all my new stuff was going in, after all God, or his rep on the planet has chosen it.

  3. Stu said…

    Whilst I can see the authors perspective, I do think its a bit harsh.
    I think she is indeed in a transitional period right now, but that does not mean that this work should not have even shown. It’s an insight, a glimpse of possible things to come.

    deep down isn’t everything abstract anyway?

  4. massaccio said…

    dont understand the question….~Is the answer satnav?