Cecily Brown

Gagosian Gallery

I sense a backlash building after Cecily Brown’s numerous recent appearances in the popular press as an avatar of a sort of painting that is stylistically familiar yet modishly edgy in subject. What’s unfortunate is that she’s been taken up in this manner just as her paintings have been getting more difficult. The eye-catching pornographic imagery on view in her 1998 show at Deitch Projects has receded. In four of the eight works here I don’t see it at all—it’s either banished or buried so deeply that it might as well not be there. So the paintings lack the hook they used to have, but most of them are the better for it. Even to the extent that we can make out the depicted bodies, what we see raises more questions than it answers, and gives us reason to keep looking. In Tender is the Night, 1999, I see the big figure facing right on hands and knees, but is there another body in the picture with her—and for that matter is it a her? The most explicit painting here is Interlude, 1999, whose near achromatism recalls The Tender Trap, 1998, one of the best works in Brown’s Deitch show. But viewers unfamiliar with her previous work, instead of drooling over the coolly adumbrated scene of multiple penetrations, might suspect that they are projecting their own fantasies onto a perfectly innocent painting.

But what painting is perfectly innocent anyway? Brown’s point, I suppose, is that paintings, like people, have multiple points of entry. She seems to be coming around to the abstractionists’ insinuation that a painting without fixed imagery, while open to figurative suggestions, might allow for even more ways in. What prompted the change? Brown has no doubt reflected on her own gestural mark-making and the imagery to which she was harnessing it. But there might also have been an external stimulus: I think that what separates Brown’s 1998 show from this one is MOMA’s 1998–99 Pollock retrospective. To my eye, Pollock’s influence, negligible in Brown’s earlier work (which was indebted to de Kooning and Bacon), subtly pervades this entire exhibition. Not that Brown’s been throwing and pouring paint all over the place. She’s too smart to fall for any of the stereotypical Pollock signifiers. But he’s there, in the curious blend of turbulence and tautness, in the feverish, crowded, hectic quality that now, as then, tends to strike people as a pictorial faux pas.

There are some evident weak points—here an insufficient plasticity to the space, which needs more “give” to absorb all this activity; there an overwrought, overheated palette—highlighted by how long it takes to get a visual handle on paintings that are simply more polymorphous and multicentered than we’re used to. But as the pared-down Interlude makes perfectly clear, Brown is a pictorial architect. Although the details can be overwhelming in places, she can overload a picture without sinking it (e.g., Night Passage, 1999, and Puttin’ on the Ritz, 1999–2000). And she lays down paint insolently, as if throwing down a gauntlet—there’s a cold fury to it that’s somehow thrilling to see. The results are tough, uningratiating abstract paintings that might scandalize more artistic orthodoxies than all the orgies in the world.

Barry Schwabsky