Frieze: How Cecily Brown’s Ambiguous Canvases Mirror the Political Instabilities of Our Times

A retrospective at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art reveals the
painter’s universe: life as a vortex of activity, sound and fury which
may ultimately symbolize nothing

Cecily Brown’s new show is a retrospective affair called ‘Where, When, How Often and With Whom’. This persistently interrogatory title befits the discomfiting tone of much of the work here, while the absence of a question mark suggests that we are unlikely to get clear answers. The highlight is an enormous, eponymous painting from 2017, which stretches over ten metres in length. We might wish to define this highly ambitious canvas as a history painting, given its inspiration: an infamous 2016 photograph of French policemen fining a woman on the beach at Nice for wearing a burkini. While Brown’s figures recall those witnesses who can be seen sunbathing in the original image, formally they remain restless, in flux, as if the scene were being viewed myopically. Trying to interpret the work as a straightforward polemic on the control of women by the state is problematized by this painterly strategy, for what we see is a fidgety blur of colour and energy that is deliberately disjointed and near-incoherent.

Brown isn’t interested in glib answers; she doesn’t make it easy for her viewers. Her titles are non-descriptive, often merely allusive and, on occasion, non-sequiturs. She’s not keen on bravura displays of technique, either. To paraphrase a recent interview for Louisiana Museum, she declines a narcissistic use of intricate brushstrokes that beg for admiration. On this evidence, we might see Brown’s universe as one that is essentially unresolved and that, by extension, she views life as a vortex of activity, sound and fury which may ultimately symbolize nothing. Uncertainty is all.

The body with its traumas and tragedy, its highs of houghmagandy: these contrasts are caught in abundance here. Brown’s worlds are a distorted take on the catastrophes captured by Théodore Géricault and Francisco Goya – their drowned, their cannibals, their naked and their dead. The body’s only solace is a brief moment of furtive nookie in a glade, as in Couple (2004): a voyeuristic scene featuring a standing, semi-naked couple caught snogging, the woman’s scarlet chemise highlighted against the green and brown mulch of vegetation. Here lingers Brown’s interest in the dark stuff of life, whether salacious pornography or the forensic pathologies of a Francis Bacon painting.

Many of the works here nod to past giants. The adolescent figures in Edgar Degas’s Young Spartans Exercising (c.1860) flex and stretch in Untitled (CB 1364) (2018). We see a pair of feet in Untitled (After Beckmann) (2012) splayed ten to two in a valgus deformity, thus quoting the great German expressionist. The cover of Jimi Hendrix’s album Electric Ladyland (1968), with its group shot of nude women taken in an unflattering xanthic light, recurs in Name That Tune (2012). The crouching forms from the sleeve image beckon to us like sirens, their faces now transmuted, appearing alternately seductive or ghoul-like.

More unsettling still is Thug in Landscape (2015), in which a semi-naked, Pan-like figure appears to frolic amongst a pullulating mass of greenery and discarded rubbish. This goon has spiky black hair, thick eyebrows and a deranged rictus. Brown notes that viewers sometimes find it hard to un-see forms they think they can discern and, for me, the squat pose of the figure here looks like Simon Cowell performing a Māori haka. Brown’s ambiguous canvases impress with their unsettling import and, in this, arguably mirror the instabilities of these dire times, where wilful obfuscation and radical mendacity seem the political norm. Faced with such unrelenting incertitude, it is perhaps understandable that some may leave this challenging show craving clarity, an art with a tad more legibility and a period of calm scrutability.

Cecily Brown, 'Where, When, How Often and With Whom' runs at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, until 10 March 2019.

- John Quinn, Frieze Magazine