The Kinetics of a Cecily Brown Painting 

By Serafina Lee

The painter Cecily Brown works somewhere in between the abstract and the figurative as she dislodges the body from any type of identifiable setting. Heralded as one of Britain’s leading contemporary artists, Brown provides ‘a feminine answer to macho Abstract Expressionists like Willem DeKooning’. 

 

Some of her figures are comfortingly discernible and solid, whereas others are fractured shapes that hint towards biological forms, piling and turning in on themselves. Her work sends the viewer on a treasure hunt of classical allusions which appear (sometimes so naturally lodged in the paint that they’re unidentifiable) throughout her oeuvre. Brown dismantles the terms of the original context, liberating the nude into an embodied exploration of carnal desire.

Untitled (Blood Thicker Than Mud), 2012, oil on linen / Image courtesy of Cecily Brown 

Brown’s twisting bodies are charged with a tension that borders on collapse. Bodies are piled and stacked. In Untitled (Blood Thicker Than Mud), 2012, a sea of figures recline and gaze in frenzied directions. Brown explains in an interview that ‘I need the body as a vehicle to talk about being alive, to understand the world in a way. It’s the meat, the flesh of life that one wants to hold onto. For me, when the body disappears, it just becomes paint.’ The bodily reality of her figures grounds a semblance of identifiable, relatable meaning for the viewer. She evokes the active, vital sensations of the body through the idea of tension, playing with the fine line between chaos and cohesion. 

Combing the Hair (La Coiffure), 1896, oil on canvas / Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery 

One of Brown’s formative influences is Edgar Degas’ Combing the Hair (La Coiffure), and I think this is an excellent way in to her work. In it, a young girl leans back whilst an unnamed woman combs her red her. The girl is dependent on the woman, blindly allowing her control over her body. Whilst an intimate scene of domesticity, the vermilion becomes overwhelmingly obtrusive, absorbing the subject into the background. There is an insinuation that this simple scene of trust is also about the inadvertent danger of dependency, as the woman could easily pull the girl’s hair and cause her to lose her balance. The hair, at the centre of the painting, is pulled taut; Degas encapsulates the kinetic movement of the brush through her hair. The body becomes a site of activity and sensation.

THE YEAR OF THE SCAVENGER, 2012, oil on linen / Image courtesy of Sotheby's 

In THE YEAR OF THE SCAVENGER (2012), a crowd of almost unidentifiable bodies swarm the canvas. Worth noting is the size of the painting (170 x 211 cms) which makes it an unmissable spectacle in any space, almost becoming a body itself in the way that it consumes attention. Looking at the painting is a bit like looking at a beach scene, such as Hollywood’s Malibu Beach Scene by Miguel Covarrubias, through a kaleidoscope. Limbs are dynamic and sporadic; at the centre, a yellow hand seems to peer through the clustering mass. The thick, stacked colours of the burning apricot and peach to ash flesh tones creates a moving sea of skin. It’s cramped and unsettling, almost smugly challenging us to discern anything concrete or place these figures within a context. 

 

I liked Priscilla Frank’s description of the paintings as ‘somewhere between a scantily-clad seance and an overheated bathhouse’. The figures are teeming with desire and corporeality; the splashes of warm orange replicate the heat of kinetic movement. The sensation of touch is also captured through warm colours, associated with vitality and activity. Dimension and scale is also thrown off-kilter, as there is no real sense of foreground or background, only one teeming space within which to operate. There is a real threat of collapse, as the figures balance symbiotically but also claustrophobically upon one another. 

 

This intensely fractured vision reveals something about the indecipherability of desire, which is felt in more visceral, abstract terms. Brown’s figures ground the body as the locus of perception- a universal understanding of human experience. 

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© Helicon Magazine 2019

University of Bristol