Tender is the Night
In this painting by Cecily Brown, it's challenging or disturbing in that, that it explodes out. The more you try to find a meaning, an image, and the more it challenges you, the more it pulls apart. You feel another whole history of painting here.
My name is Thomas Houseago. I'm an artist based here in LA.
Tender is the Night, 1999.
And what’s quite radical is it's taking Arshile Gorky, or de Kooning, these heroes of Abstract Expressionism, who were taking the figure and transforming that into abstraction, in a way, taken on one level, and Cecily is returning that. She's turning that tide. She's refusing to kind of allow that to happen, allow that simplistic reading of painting to abstraction, abstraction to this kind of fantasy of what art could do. She's pulling it back.
I think that's why in Cecily's painting, it's both very resonant and also awkward, disturbing, because she's refusing to go with the tide of the 20th century, which is this idea of progression, that you progress and you don't return.
What's interesting about it is it's a very, very pleasurable painting to look at. There are these areas of blues and greens, and they shine through, that are almost iridescent. You also have this, the figure becomes a landscape, it becomes a universe.
I think Cecily also looks at paint as matter. I think she doesn't look at paint particularly as a descriptive medium, meaning that you make the paint look like something. She somehow maintains that the paint is something. It is what it's recording. And I think what's fascinating about the piece is that it never settles. It never lets you quite find an image.
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.