Cecily Brown, Where, When, How Often and with Whom?, 2017, triptych, oil on linen, overall 7' 5 3⁄8“ × 33' 7⁄8”.

Cecily Brown, Where, When, How Often and with Whom?, 2017, triptych, oil on linen, overall 7' 5 3⁄8“ × 33' 7⁄8”.

Cecily Brown

The massive 2017 triptych that gives this show its title, Where, When, How Often and with Whom, is a complex but inscrutable composition. Its left canvas depicts what appears to be a shipwreck (or at least a vessel tossed on a storm), while the center is occupied by a mass of figures who direct their apparently alarmed attention not at the foundering vessel but outward at the viewer (unless we are to imagine a shift in viewpoint, so that the viewer is at sea with the boat); on the right, a single figure lies sprawled out with another kneeling alongside. The painting brings to mind the refugees arriving—or failing to arrive—on the southern shores of Europe, and a text accompanying the exhibition informs us that part of the central canvas was inspired by the notorious 2016 photographs of French police on the beach at Nice confronting a woman wearing a burkini because it was not considered “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.”

The impact of this work, painted with all the energy we’ve come to expect of Cecily Brown, is diluted by the triptych’s size and uncertain visual focus. Her every brushstroke feels declarative, yet her imagery, in this painting, loses some of its confrontational edge. On a more contained scale, the ambiguities attendant on her constant play between image and abstraction present the viewer with urgent questions. One of the best things about this survey, curated by Anders Kold, is the rhythmic way its installation alternates between small and large-scale works so as to encourage closer looking. Several small, mostly untitled paintings alert the viewer to just how various and often surprisingly sensitive her mark-making and color choices can be; studies on paper reveal her absorption in art history. Overall, the show makes the best possible case for Brown as one of the outstanding painters of the day. In this context, even the overreach of Where, When, How Often and with Whom bespeaks a rare ambition—and perhaps also confronts the painter herself with a query as to whether the provocative sexual imagery typical of her previous work has now become less of a challenge to convention than the opposing determination not to put the body on display.

Curious about the painting’s title, what else could I do but google it? The top results were from books on social work. The questions turned out to be key to cognitive-behavioral assessment, which is, as one textbook on the subject states, “mainly concerned with who does what, where, when, how often, and with whom. It is also concerned to identify the absence or withholding of behaviors which it would normally be useful and reasonable to perform. It deals with the consequences, whether intended or not, which actions have for all the parties involved—those who are said to have the problem and those for whom someone else’s behavior be may be a problem.”

Just so, art always seems to be assessing and reassessing its own problems and the problem it can be for others. But more than most artists, Brown puts this inquiry at her work’s center. As she says, “Each painting asks its own set of questions.” Most of the questions, like that of how one can take responsibility for what one thinks one sees, concern the person facing the paintings. The works’ reflexive effect may stem from Brown’s deftness at the complicated activity of handling paint, her ability to coax it to describe this or that and then let it force-stop the description in order to perform its own material presence.

Barry Schwabsky