Art-world sophisticates are schooled not to hunt for hidden pictures in abstract paintings, but that’s just what Cecily Brown encourages. It’s one of her tactics for holding our attention. So I dutifully search for the “darkened interior in which a figure reclines before a mirror in a provocative pose” that the wall text insists is buried in the surrealist jumble of Candy (1999). Is that a naked lady, with her legs spread wide, at the upper left? Or am I just seeing things?
THE PICNIC: A mad meltdown of John Tenniel’s illustration of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
Brown’s 10-year retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts (organized by the Des Moines Art Center) flits giddily back and forth between representation and abstraction. In case you missed the notices in Vogue, W, and Vanity Fair, the 37-year-old London-born, New York–based superstar is making big Abstract Expressionist painting hip again.
Black Painting I (2002) is a blurry hungover memory of Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Her 2006 triptych The Picnic is a mad meltdown of John Tenniel’s classic illustration of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, or maybe the tumult of a Tintoretto Last Supper.
Creativity runs in Brown’s blood. Her mother is the Booker Prize–nominated novelist Shena Mackay. The late British art critic David Sylvester, a family friend, took her to art shows when she was growing up, once sneaking her into London’s Royal Academy after hours with his painter pal Francis Bacon. When she was 21, her parents revealed that Sylvester was her biological daddy. So it’s fitting that her work is packed with art-historical allusions.
Gangbusters (2001) is supposed to be based on one of those old master paintings of marauding soldiers politely kidnapping and gang-raping plus “a frieze of bunny-like shapes.” A pale person on all fours emerges from a cascade of yellow, tan, and orange brushstrokes in Tender Is the Night (1999). You can’t miss the couple lying next to each other and masturbating in the white-on-white dream These Foolish Things (2002).
Many observers hyperventilate over Brown’s randy imagery. She’s fascinated by people in heightened states — sex, death, rape, brawls — but this ain’t really her subject. “I don’t have a message,” she said at the MFA press preview, and I believe her. She’s into tapping wild energy, no matter its source, to fuel her racing brushstrokes. It’s how she musters the action for her action paintings.
The form comes out of de Kooning and Bacon. Her technique is plain in Lady Luck (1999), which seems to depict a flayed corpse with its head thrown back, eyes hollow meaty sockets, lush pink lips twisted into a smile. Or maybe it’s a lady in heart-shaped glasses having one of those petite morts. Brown isn’t a colorist; instead she fusses over the tonal range from light to dark. And she loves pushing paint around all spontaneous-like — from long lyrical brushstrokes and scrubbed-on color to short jagged jabs, where the paint collects energy and accelerates.
But it feels like just a lot of flash. For all its naughty bits, Brown’s painting is comfortably old hat, a gimmicky retread of mid-century abstraction with lots of art-historical footnotes and a bratty 1990s sneer.
Is there an old geezer artist making better work than 95-year-old Louise Bourgeois? Robert Rauschenberg, 81, seems stuck making slick knockoffs of his great work of several decades ago, and 76-year-old Jasper Johns’s recent work is so gray and constipated, it might as well have been painted by a zombie. Maybe Lucian Freud, 83, or Cy Twombly, 78? Both have turned out rocking paintings in the past several years.
I wouldn’t have considered asking such grandiose questions about Bourgeois 10 years ago. I’m amused by her surreal abstract paintings and wooden totems from the 1940s and ’50s, but too much of her work since — mainly metal and stone sculptures of abstracted pods, cocks and boobs — is either blah or tries too hard to be bad-ass or haunting. I left a retrospective of her drawings at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center in 1996 thinking, “Whatever.” But right around the time of the MIT show, Bourgeois began a series of fabric sculptures that leave me starry-eyed. “Louise Bourgeois: The Woven Child (in context),” at the Worcester Art Museum, collects seven of these pieces.
Bourgeois was born in Paris in 1911, and as a teen she toiled in the family business restoring antique tapestries before moving to New York in 1938. I tracked her down in Manhattan to ask about her recent fabric sculptures. She e-mails, “I’m not so interested in working with fabric but rather with clothes and garments that belonged to me. These clothes hold memories of places and of people. They form a diary of place and time, and that’s what I’m working with.”