Tender is the Night
Throughout her career, Cecily Brown has explored how painting can illuminate the erotic charge of the human form. Brown first emerged in the mid-1990s with compositions of explicitly sexual imagery. Building on the big gestural paint strokes and all-over compositions developed by abstract expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell in the 1950s, she creates paintings that are simultaneously abstract and figurative. In Tender is the Night, the figure is not immediately apparent, but mixed into the jabs and tangles of yellow and flesh-toned paint is a female form on all fours. Though not overt in the carnal details that the pose conjures, the work suggests a state of hazy ecstasy; the figure’s immersion into her frenetic surroundings points to a moment of pure instinct, when consciousness and the physical world become one.
Cecily Brown’s painting often uses the history of sex as depicted in Western art history and reinvents the subject matter through an immediate, direct application of pigment. As critic Johanna Drucker notes, the paintings “flicker at the hallucinatory edge between figural representation and gestural abstraction,” and these flickers can mimic the ranges of touch and flashes of eroticism. As a pictorial strategy, Brown’s paintings never fully coalescence into stable images, but instead delay closure and become a field of often beautiful passages of colorful marks and strokes.
Black Painting 1, 2002, is the first of a series of darkly toned works picturing solitary women as though in the throes of erotic visions. Ambiguous forms hover above the women, like the cloud of fluttering bats that appear in Francisco Goya’s famous etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799. However, in Black Painting 1, the cloud is made up of phalluses, which come in and out of view through the application of Brown’s brushstrokes. This vision seems to have impacted the woman lying below, whose body seems to contort and twist with the same energy as the cloud.