New York

Cecily Brown, Untitled (After von Bayros), ca. 1997–98, ballpoint pen and colored pencil on paper, 12 5/8 × 12 5/8".

Cecily Brown, Untitled (After von Bayros), ca. 1997–98, ballpoint pen and colored pencil on paper, 12 5/8 × 12 5/8".

Cecily Brown

Drawing Center

Cecily Brown, Untitled (After von Bayros), ca. 1997–98, ballpoint pen and colored pencil on paper, 12 5/8 × 12 5/8".

Cecily Brown’s exhibition at the Drawing Center, the first devoted exclusively to her works on paper, delivered everything we expect from the artist: sex, violence, prurient gestural marks, and bursts of garish color. Organized by Claire Gilman, the show included nearly eighty drawings, including works based on paintings by Bruegel, prints by Hogarth, photos by nineteenth-century pornographers, and even the cover of a Dover paperback of “copyright-free” animal figures. Brown created the works over twenty-some years using a variety of mediums (ink, colored pencil, watercolor, pastel) and sizes (from a standard letter sheet to a monumental page almost four by seven feet); they were presented here under a compelling unifying theme: rehearsal. Directing us as viewers to focus on Brown’s repeated motifs, this rubric (also the exhibition’s title) played on the traditional function of drawing as a preparatory sketch through its academic insistence that we keep in mind the original Old French term rehercier—to go over again and again in order to better understand—later expounded upon by Deleuze as repetition with a difference. What is proper to these drawings, what united them, the title seemed to say, is that they provided a ground on which the artist could work through ways of seeing.

That, and the pink walls. These drawings—with their circle jerks and carnival scenes and thrusting knives and bound women and open-mouthed fish and erection after erection after erection—were hung against a soft blush pink. And the glow of that pink, the kind of color paint companies call Supple Pink or Pink Cherub or Ballerina, gendered the drawings but also softened the sense of violation inherent to these tangled limbs and fragmented bodies. The mediation enacted by the color granted the drawings a performativity that seemed at odds with their private nature, insisting that we look at them as more than automatist reverie or unconscious desire.

It also heightened their strangeness, as with Untitled (After von Bayros), ca. 1997–98, a small ballpoint-pen-and-colored-pencil picture of a female nude surrounded by cats, who are inexplicably clothed. The same head of a cat, its mouth open in an expression somewhere between menace and joy, is repeated across the page with its body configured differently each time: standing on hind legs, crouching on all fours, leapfrogging over another cat. The cats—playing, fighting, it is unclear—frame a nude, stretched on her belly and straddling an outstretched leg. The repetition within the page mirrored the unsettling repetition of motifs across the various works on view, as in five watercolor bestiaries in which a rhinoceros head in the center of the page came in and out of focus against the profile of an ape and an exceptionally phallic platypus.

Brown’s drawings demonstrate in particular her stunning mastery of watercolor, in which a gray wash can telegraph the roughness of rhinoceros skin or a slight stain of pink become a crotch or a hand opened to strike it. This restraint serves her well. In “Rehearsal” Brown left no doubt of her ability to make complex and layered compositions—a group of untitled drawings from 2012 and 2013 that combine figures from the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland with her bestiary is but one example—but her erotic forms are most powerful when she creates them using the barest of lines.

Rachel Churner