Could Cecily Brown be the best British artist painting today? She certainly gives great sex, says Waldemar Januszczak
Brown has new paintings at the Gagosian Gallery. If you have been there already, you’ll know what a murderously large space it is and how it eats up artists of lesser stature. Even good artists tend to rattle around inside the belly of the Gagosian. But Brown doesn’t. The sheer fierceness of her surfaces, all that Gatling-gun paintwork firing off the canvases, makes her a match for any white cube of any size. Her pictures are comparable to Monet’s in only one way, but it’s a good way: the paint in them seems to be moving. They won’t settle down. And your job as a spectator is to keep up with them. You’ll never quite get there, but that’s part of the fun.
The subject for which she is best known is sex. I have had cause to note on these pages before that painting sex is extremely difficult. Since I last pointed this out, it has not got any easier, so I’d like to run through the arguments again. What’s easy, or easier at least, is painting the preamble to sex, or its postscript. Nakedness. Bodies. The exchange of glances. Anything that falls into the general category of desire has had a good run out in British art. So, too, has postcoital tristesse. I would even call that a British speciality. Think of Stanley Spencer. Or, indeed, Freud. Is it a preamble, or is it a postscript? You can’t always tell. But what it definitely isn’t is the act itself.
When you see a beautiful nude, your instincts override your cognitive mechanisms, and you feel desire. Lots of painters count on that. Freud counts on it. With desire, the bomb’s inside you. But if I show you two people actually going at it, your porn filters get switched on instead and distance you from the explosion. You might enjoy peeping at it, but the pleasure comes from the voyeurism and not from sharing whatever it is that the couple are sharing.
Desire is easier to paint because it’s automatic. We are programmed to feel it. Sex is hard because it takes a particular type of artistic skill to get inside someone else’s thoughts and evoke what they are feeling: to touch their touch and make their rhythm your rhythm. That’s what Brown can do. That’s her skill. She paints sex, but she isn’t dirty. She paints pleasure, but it’s from within. So it’s also love, and poetry, and a headful of thoughts.
For instance, there is a painting in the Gagosian show called New Louboutin Pumps. What are new Louboutin pumps? I looked them up on the net and it turns out that Christian Louboutin is a trendy French designer who is particularly good at sexy shoes. In the painting, there’s a flurry of messy pink paintwork and, at first, no recognisable image. But, after a moment, you discern a shoe being pushed into the foreground. If you follow this shoe back into the picture, up the attached leg, you can just about make out the naked woman it belongs to. Then you notice that she’s not alone. It’s hard to be sure about much in a Brown picture because the paint is so fidgety and describes so little. But, yes, there’s a guy in there as well, and the two of them are making love on a chair, Jack Nicholson-style, which is to say, he’s sitting on the chair and she’s on his lap. So they’re having fun. And you can feel it. But it’s the stuff that’s happening in the rest of the picture that yanks you into their action.
If that’s a bed behind them, then it’s unmade, and the sheets are knotted. If that’s a cupboard, then its contents have been spilt. If those are clothes, then they’ve been ripped off and strewn. Paint’s wondrous ability to suggest without describing is being fully exploited. Information this inchoate is really enticing and really involving. It makes your hands twitchy. It makes you want to touch. The whole room seems to be climaxing. And you’ re interested. Really interested.
So Cecily Brown does good sex. But if that were all she did, then she’d be a one-trick pony. As it is, she’s a galloping herd of horses. There are a dozen paintings in her Gagosian show and all of them feel different. The Picnic is obviously a huge dishevelled still life, a table-top covered with plates, bottles and food. The orgiastic paintwork suggests we have got there too late. The banquet’s over. Yet this same painter of mad oyster orgies also gives us a beautiful moment of introspection, when a young girl sitting against a tree seems to be lost in thought. She has just read something or got something, and now she’s thinking about it. You can hear those thoughts in that hazy August way that you hear insects in the summer. The girl may even have painted something and is now sucking her brush as she looks at it. In which case, she could be Brown outdoors. And aren’t those pumps she’s wearing by Christian Louboutin?
All the paintings here lure you into their story lines while never making entirely clear what those story lines are. They have an unusual mood. A French mood. The person who painted them knows about Manet and the impressionists. She’s aware of Baudelaire’s instruction to artists to remain painters of modern life. Déjeuner sur l’herbe has to be a favourite example. Hence the Louboutin pumps. And the guiltless coupling.
Yet she knows her other genres, too, and other art history. There’s lots of Bonnard here as well, and some Vuillard. She is incredibly good at taking you into foreign rooms and encouraging you to listen to their sound. I loved the painting called Maid’s Day Off, which confronts you with a huge square space through which a gang of children appears to have rampaged. What a domestic mess. Yet how lovely the pinks are that they have thrown around.
So you can tell Brown wasn’t born an American. She knows too much. But these days, she lives in New York, and Washington Square has taught her a few abstract- expressionist tricks as well. De Kooning, I imagine, would have introduced her to the fascinating third dimension situated between abstraction and the figurative world. The size of her pictures — generally whopping — is the all-American size of macho painting. So it’s curious to see such fabulous intimacies recorded in it. I guess she must like Guston, early-period abstract Guston, because her colours seem to hover in slightly mismatched abstract patches and refuse to stop fidgeting. That’s why there’s so much movement in them.
Yet this same muscular abstractionist can get so lyrical, too, and small and feminine. What is A Rubber Monkey Flexing Its Paw about? It’s the most gorgeous painting in the show. But it’s half the size of the rest. A nude in dark stockings sits across the foreground and her body is lovely. But look at her head: it’s a monkey’s head. This monkey is holding up a mirror and, as far as I can tell, it’s biting it. I give up on the meaning of an image like that. Nude women looking into mirrors have been symbols of vanity since the Renaissance at least, which Brown will know. Monkeys are symbols of lust. She’ll know that too. But I’m happy to let the rest of this mysterious image mean whatever else it means in private, because all I want to do is enjoy the landscape behind the monkey, and the way that the paintwork has suddenly gone fluid and darting and Gorkyish.
It wasn’t like that in the picture before. It isn’t wristy in the next picture. But with Cecily Brown, even when she’s painting monkeys, you get horses for courses.