New York

Cecily Brown

Deitch Projects

We’ve sometimes heard a de Kooning (or, for that matter, a Rubens) described as an orgy of paint. What Cecily Brown has done in “High Society,” her second exhibition, is to literalize this cliché. The works on view are not so much figurative paintings—depictions though they are, in fact, of orgies—as they are abstract expressionist ones. Her impulsive and energetic brushwork, full of figurative reminiscences as it often was in the hands of first-generation Abstract Expressionists who received traditional beaux-arts training, has been turned away from its nonobjective aim and back toward description, in her handling of seething masses of debauched, sensation-wracked bodies.

Brown is hardly the first painter to have descried the allusive potential in abstract, gestural mark-making: the Surrealist Dorothea Tanning, in her later paintings, also gave image to the eroticism implied by the dissolving and merging forms of Abstract Expressionism, its dramas of tension and release; and Francis Bacon was well aware of the power to be drawn from basing his figurative style on the disruptive energies of the spontaneous nonrepresentational mark. With Brown, however, we find neither the explosive neurotic tension of Bacon’s isolated figures nor the insinuating voluptuary flux of Tanning’s reveries, filled with body fragments. Instead we find a brittle, agitated self-consciousness about transgression, one that is evident as well in the questionable sense of irony that has led the artist to title her paintings after movie musicals, as with On the Town, 1998, or Guys and Dolls, 1997–98. This self-consciousness ultimately works against unrestrained sensuality—as does the very idea of the orgy, as all readers of de Sade soon learn. Thanks to Brown’s strangely slick surfaces—we feel as if we are seeing these bacchanalia through a pane of glass—we become more voyeur than viewer; all the elements of tactile and visual pleasure are on display without our being able to share in them. But what points beyond this coldness is the psychological insight shown by Brown’s feeling for faces—always those of women—which register anxiety more than ecstasy, lassitude as much as anticipation, and, in the end. are more memorable than all the legs, breasts, and penises that are their decorative foils.

Brown’s cheeky transgressiveness may seem callow, but because she has the painterly gifts to carry off even a dubious enterprise brilliantly, it remains as beguiling as it is irritating. Even so, she should beware of letting her love of complication turn her into a constructor of academic “grand machines,” and consider whether or not she’s doing more than updating The Romans of the Decadence. It may not be insignificant that one of the best works here was the introvert at the bacchanal—the nearly all-white The Tender Trap, 1998, a languorously spare and delicate skeleton of a painting that relied mostly on the company of its neighbors to turn suggestive.

Barry Schwabsky