New York

Glenn Brown

Gagosian Gallery (21)

As an appropriationist painter whose technique is as close to perfect as one could imagine, the challenge for Glenn Brown has often been simply to choose the most interesting source material. And while he has emphasized the extent to which he manipulates rather than merely reproduces his selections, he has yet to unveil a genuinely radical act of transformation. That this is Brown’s first solo exhibition in New York comes as something of a surprise—after all, he’s been on the YBA list since it was first typed up—but this show ultimately points to an artist happy to remain comfortably within a set of self-imposed limitations.

Previous bodies of work have seen Brown immerse himself in the oeuvres of artists as outwardly diverse as Frank Auerbach, Salvador Dalí, biblical romanticist John Martin, and sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss. Occasional rows have broken out over alleged copyright infringement, but these have mostly been the results of overly aggressive estate management or the sentimental attachment to a simplistic ideal of originality on the part of the popular press. It was strongly suggested by a number of British newspapers, for example, that The Loves of Shepherds, 2000, which was based on the cover of an obscure science-fiction novel, was in some way an attempt to deceive the museum-going public.

For the most part, however, Brown has enjoyed an easy ride in the press compared with many of his contemporaries. Perhaps the fact that he makes such labor-intensive work, spending nights holed up in the studio rather than down at the pub, has eased his passage into midcareer. But while the seven paintings and two small sculptures here see him reach further back into art history than before (and, in the process, turn the distortion a notch), finally they plow a familiar furrow. With the mystical power of a reanimator and the cold skill of an assassin, Brown brings peacefully resting images back to life only to kill them all over again. The result is superficially impressive but resists real intellectual or emotional involvement.

Death Disco, 2004, for instance, samples Rembrandt’s Flora, 1634, a composition that the Dutchman himself reworked a number of times. Brown vertically elongates the image of the artist’s wife until it resembles a compressed still from a wide-screen movie. The brushwork of the original is exaggerated here to such a degree that the subject’s skin looks burned, tattooed, or reptilian, swirling with suggested texture, while the surface of the panel itself remains stubbornly flat and matte. This is Brown’s latest twist on the near-photographic style of rendition he applied, mockingly, to Auerbach’s mud-pie impasto portraits in the early ’90s. Now, as then, it signals the incontestable fact that we experience art more often in reproduction than in actuality, with all the visual inaccuracies and arbitrary recontextualizations that implies.

The title of the work recalls a defining moment of British postpunk and, along with others here, such as Sex and Filth, is consistent with the artist’s habitual referencing of his own pop-cultural heritage. It seems inadequate, however, as a method of goading high and low into contention, if this is indeed Brown’s aim. When Damien Hirst mined the Sex Pistols’ back catalogue for titles a decade or more ago, it seemed a wholly appropriate strategy that paralleled the work’s iconic shock value. In Brown’s case, it comes off as halfhearted lip service, an allusion retained solely to flag as contemporary a practice that is, at heart, fundamentally conservative.

Michael Wilson