New York

Cecily Brown, Madrepora (Shipwreck), 2016, oil on linen, 8' 1“ x 12' 7 1/8”.

Cecily Brown, Madrepora (Shipwreck), 2016, oil on linen, 8' 1“ x 12' 7 1/8”.

Cecily Brown

Cecily Brown, Madrepora (Shipwreck), 2016, oil on linen, 8' 1“ x 12' 7 1/8”.

In her marvelous writing on the art of Joan Mitchell in Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions (2007), Maggie Nelson wrestles with several of the reasons why Mitchell’s paintings have proven so difficult to place in the established art-historical accounts of postwar American painting. Mitchell pushed her work too far into the wild realms of nature and human consciousness to fit the rigid formalist theories of Clement Greenberg. She labored too long on every canvas to count as the kind of action painter held up by Harold Rosenberg. She was unapologetically committed to the depths and ranges of her colors without being a dainty or diminutive colorist. Her paintings carried a “furious insistence on over-the-top visual pleasure,” writes Nelson. That effect was difficult to write about and almost impossible to contain in the typical critical appraisals of her day. Nelson also notes, quite wryly, that in this Mitchell was not alone. “A distrust of beauty—especially when aligned with the feminine—goes back a long way,” she writes. “At least to Eve in Eden, probably earlier.”

It also goes a good distance forward, too, for that same distrust of beauty has dogged the career of Cecily Brown for more than two decades. Ever since she began showing her work in New York in the mid-1990s, first at Deitch Projects and then for years with Gagosian, Brown has been hyped and—often in the same breath—dismissed for making paintings that are big and bold, abstract and figurative, messy and sexy, shallow and pink and pretty and often vaguely pornographic, and just as often lacking in any real sense of urgency, grit, hunger, or need. In some ways, she set herself up for that reading. A British painter let loose in a foreign country, she is the daughter of a renowned critic (David Sylvester), and a woman of some privilege who has often posed for fashion magazines in paint-splattered clothes, barefoot, defiant, a cigarette dangling from her hand. Brown’s harshest critics found her paintings oversexed and underwhelming, a la mode but without any friction, without edge.

And then something changed, or perhaps Brown found her subject, which, if the argument holds, isn’t the nude or the sex act at all, but rather the shipwreck, in all its allegorical, art-historical, metaphoric, and emotional guises. Her first solo show at Paula Cooper was named for an Emily Dickinson poem, “A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!”—itself an incredibly compact battle cry, full of rue and the weariness of war, which ends with the lines “Steady—my soul: What issues / Upon thine arrow hang!” The five paintings on view drew upon the compositional tension and drama of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–19: torques of storm, survival, and terrible fate. Brown has often made explicit references to old European masters in her work. But in these five paintings she isn’t merely quoting Titian or Rubens, Bruegel or Hogarth. The reference is total, swept up, seeped in. Her color palette, as in Madrepora (Shipwreck), 2016, has cooled to blue, accented with greens and blacks that speak of an almost cosmic cruelty. Her epic triptych A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!, 2016, packs a swirling force into three crowded panels.

The figure still flashes through these complex and ambitious layers of action, but the glimpses of flesh are a world away from Brown’s earlier, lighter bacchanalia. If there’s still a certain eroticism to be found in the curve of a back or the line of a leg, then it is measured by a tremulous proximity to danger and dread, or it returns like a strange echo in the strain of a clearly agonized and anguished neck. Brown has occasionally been compared to Joan Mitchell, and Nelson does mention her in passing, as a younger painter expanding the tradition of abstraction. Here, Brown owned her place in Mitchell’s lineage, having allowed the inner seriousness and utter turmoil of her sense of beauty to come through.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie