Cecily Brown is that rare thing, an artist who captures the sensation of sex, says Waldemar Januszczak
British art, meanwhile, has tended to turn up after the event. The startlingly lustful confessions of Spencer and Freud captured some particularly pungent postcoital gloom: Freud’s art seems always to be standing back and assessing the damage. For caresses rather than slaps you need to turn to the mass-produced nudes of Henry Moore, who never fooled me with all that formal guff of his about working on the borders of abstraction. I watched Moore run his hands over various sculpted nudes on several occasions and never failed to notice the instinctive alertness of his fingers. Moore might have been from Yorkshire, and he was certainly sentimental, but his fingers knew what they liked and remembered exactly where they’d been.
But that still wasn’t sex. It was still desire. Even Bacon, with his spent heaps of chaps in underpants, was painting the aftermath not the act itself. So it was not until I encountered the supremely sexy paintings of Cecily Brown, which have arrived at Modern Art Oxford, that an obvious truth about the painting of sex declared itself to me: men see it and feel it differently from women.
I know it sounds facile. But art has never noted this fact as clearly as it might have done, or should have done. Art history — an entirely masculine invention — has invariably presented and understood sex in masculine terms. The chase, the foreplay, the build-up, have been obsessively presented and represented. But the sex act itself has been tiptoed round on pretty much every aesthetic sortie that did not actually end as pornography.
The result is 500 years of avoidance. We’re supposed to be obsessed with sex, but what we are really obsessed with is the perfume of sex’s promise, not the smells, slurps and sloshes that are involved in doing it. I’ll leave it to fledgling Freudians searching for PhD subjects to investigate the psychological imperatives governing this avoidance. Was it shame? Or was it super-efficient biology, concentrating only on the preamble? Whatever it was, it left the sex act weirdly undescribed and unevoked in art: a big hole in our aesthetics.
Cecily Brown rights this wrong with a sizzling display of fluent and juicy paintings that eschew masculine embarrassment on this subject and positively reek of sex. If exhibitions had soundtracks, this one would be shuddering to the gasps of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg mouthing Je t’aime into each other’s ears. It’s a fabulously squelchy stretch of action art that throbs and pulses on all its surfaces and results in an unusually tactile show.
Brown has been on my horizon for years. Born in London in 1969, she achieved some modest notoriety in the early 1990s with small and furtive descriptions of disporting couples. They were quite good, but they seemed to describe, rather then evoke; illustrate rather than inhabit. In 1995, she moved to New York and disappeared off my radar for what must have been a decade of exhilarating growth and expansion because here she is, 10 years later, many sizes larger as an artist, sitting astride the puffing stallion of painterly chaos and controlling it as deftly and determinedly as a champion rodeo star.
Time and again her paintings charge towards the precipice of mess; always she regains control of them at the last moment. The result is a suite of wild and free-spirited images that never appear fully tamed and always vibrate with energy and possibility. Much as I’d like to continue beating about the bush with you on this matter — this is, after all, a family paper — you must surely have sensed by now what I’m trying to get at, so why don’t I just quit the circuitousness and blurt it out: Brown’s paintings capture the sensation of coming. There, I’ve said it. That’s what they do. It’s wonderful.
Interestingly, and tellingly, there are not that many coupling bodies actually on display. Brown’s art expresses itself with rhythms and vibrations rather than body parts and dangly bits. Sometimes, however, what’s going on is unmissable. A dark woman unambiguously straddles a dark man in a green and striking painting from 1999 called Performance. No doubt, too, what the naked couple lying back and thinking skywards in These Foolish Things, from 2002, have been up to. And you could hardly ask for a less ambiguous description of enthusiastic sex than the stuff that Brown shows us in her slurpy 1995 animation Four Letter Heaven — the only non-painting on the show — exposure to which causes sensible men to write articles like this. It’s one of those films that you feel you should be watching upside down at some points, so acrobatic are the manoeuvres involved.
But while the specific descriptions of sex come and go, its rhythms are always central. Every painting here seems to be driven by centrifugal forces that start in the middle of the canvas and billow outwards, towards the edge, in wave after wave of painterly dispersal. Again, I’m on unfamiliar psychosexual territory here, but are these not the rhythms of the female orgasm? Where the equivalent male sensation might be a push, a penetration, Brown’s canvases have no tip to their pyramid, no chicane to their motorway. Their energy is always that of a starburst, never that of a shotgun.
It all adds up to a startling museum debut. Brown is a mark maker of real courage and intoxicating exuberance. And while it’s obvious who her predecessors are — Soutine, Bacon, de Kooning — it is just as obvious that in bringing these particular rhythms to painting she has discovered a new territory. There is evidence, too, that whatever it was that started her off on this course has also climaxed: as we catch up with her, Brown appears to be changing direction.
The latest painting in the show is a fuzzy, anthropomorphic skull charmingly conjured up by an underlying image of two little girls holding a teddy bear: their dark heads form the skull’s eyes, and the teddy becomes the nose. The little girls are obviously mini-Cecily Browns: this, unavoidably, is a painting about the passage of time. While welcoming such painterly expansion into tristesse, I confess to hoping that Brown does not allow the melancholia to set in too firmly just yet. Lots of people have painted skulls and sadness as they age. Very few — perhaps none — have captured the sensation of sex as vividly as this.