Cecily Brown's Show at Paula Cooper is a Perfect Storm
Cecily Brown's first appearance at Paula Cooper Gallery sees the virtuoso "reluctant painter" look to historical images of shipwrecks en route to confronting the tensions of the present.
The blue lagoon: Cecily Brown's Sirens and Shipwrecks and Bathers and the Band, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Paula Cooper
A Londoner who's lived and worked in New York since 1994, Cecily Brown is known for dynamic large-scale oil paintings that blur the boundary between figuration and abstraction, generating a fierce sensual energy in the process. The subject of a solo show of new paintings at Paula Cooper Gallery (to which she recently decamped from Gagosian), the artist spoke to GARAGE about her swirling mashups, and how shipwrecks of the past inspired her present-day paintings.
GARAGE: What is the title of your show, A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!, which comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, meant to convey?
Cecily Brown: My titles have always been readymades—starting with movie musicals to everything from perfumes and song lyrics. Because these works relate to Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault, I read a lot of romantic poetry and came across this Emily Dickinson poem. It captured the mood of the largest painting and became the title for the show. My titles are usually oblique, not descriptive.
Do these paintings come from your imagination or are they inspired by mediated sources?
It's always a combination, but at least half the paintings in this show come from Delacroix and Géricault's paintings of shipwrecks. I stumbled upon a reproduction of a Delacroix shipwreck and made a drawing of it. I then made three more weeks' worth of drawings, but I didn't look at the drawings when I was painting.
Have you always been obsessed with the art of the past?
Yes, as well as the art of the present. It's all art for me, but I've never felt a distance from the past. I went to the Uffizi in Florence when I was eight years old. It's my first remembrance of looking at art.
By blurring the boundary between abstraction and figuration are you seeking a certain degree of tension?
Absolutely, tension is the main subject that arises between the two things. It's that in-between state that makes the most sense to me. I'm sometimes surprised at how abstract something has become when I feel like I've spent the whole day painting something very specific.
Why did you choose to reference such a legendary painting as Géricault's The Raft of Medusa?
After I had drawn the Delacroix shipwreck a few times I Googled shipwreck paintings and the Gericault kept coming up. I tried to resist because it's much too famous, but then I thought what the hell. Once I started working it became the deepest drawing lesson ever. It's brilliantly composed.
Even if one knows art history, it can be hard to identify your references. Are you aiming at a level of ambiguity?
I court ambiguity, absolutely. But I can break down an image and say this is a reference to that—at least it was when I made it. If you had the source near you or in your head, you'd be able to recognize things.
Although your gestures imply quick mark making, your paintings actually slow the viewer down as the eye grabs onto bits of the body and recognizable objects amidst a sea of brushstrokes. Are you intentionally making "slow art"?
Yes, definitely. I've always wanted to make paintings that made people stop and look quite closely. The magic of a painting is that you bring your own time frame to it. You can see it in a second or you can literally look at it forever. I've always wanted it to be a slow read, but it first has to catch your eye.
Speaking of slowing the viewer down, you're showing the largest painting that you've ever made, A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!, which is an amazing 9 by 33 feet. Do you want the experience of viewing it to be an immersive one?
With all of my paintings the challenge is does it work across the room, middle ground, up close, and from every angle? Part of the joy of working at such a large scale is being completely immersed in both the making of it and the viewing of it.
Are you intentionally keeping the imagery in a state of flux so that the viewer is never completely sure of what he or she is seeing?
I want the viewer to be sure about different things at different times. I have marks that can imply an eye, a mouth or clutching hands. There's a lot of shorthand between the figural parts. I want there to be the thrill of the chase, where you get things as you go along.
Is there a connection between these paintings and the work you showed at London's Thomas Dane Gallery in the summer of 2016?
The first two paintings in the show were started while I was making work for the Dane show. One body of work tends to move smoothly into the next. It's partly because of the way I work—leaving things alone for months and then coming back to them. There are themes that overlap and continuity to the work. I don't specifically make work for shows.
What's the takeaway from looking at modernists and Old Masters for inspiration rather than just looking at your peers?
Well, I need to look at technicians. I want to know how to paint, how to understand the trick and to figure out how to do it—something that old paintings reveal. There are a lot of contemporary painters that I look at and respect, but they're not dealing with the same type of things as those of the past.
You spent the first half of your life in London and nearly the second half of it in New York. Do you think of yourself as a British artist, with that lineage, or an American one?
Oddly enough, my American passport just came today, after 23 years of living here. I think I'm both, like Malcolm Morley. I came to New York on exchange when I was at school. I loved everything that I saw here, like Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman. I loved that art, but the only thing I could do was paint, even though I tried to be a cooler artist. I was a reluctant painter for years, but I eventually decided to embrace it.
Cecily Brown: A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! is on view at Paula Cooper Gallery< New York, from October 27 to December 2, 2017.