Cecily Brown, Reclining Blonde with Nudes, 2021, oil on UV-curable pigment on linen, 113 × 87".

Cecily Brown, Reclining Blonde with Nudes, 2021, oil on UV-curable pigment on linen, 113 × 87".

Cecily Brown

Confronted with Cecily Brown’s enormous Straw Hat with Nudes, 2021, I couldn’t help but feel that in this lineup of four naked men the artist has finally found a subject adequate to her own big dick energy. Here, beyond the bloated confidence sometimes associated with that term, it stands for a generous madness, an ampleness of life force, the courage of youth, and masculinity’s creeping potential for violence. The motif of the four men appeared in four of the works that were shown as part of her recent exhibition “The Spell,” building a scaffold around the three other, apparently unrelated series on display: a group of lush red still lifes, 2020–21; a cycle titled Lady and the Swan, 2022; and a roomful of works on paper from 2017.

Though Straw Hat with Nudes is based on a found photograph, in typical Brown fashion the nudes are full of a number of paintings from which she perennially culls. For instance, the way one figure raises his arms recalls Edgar Degas’s Young Spartans Exercising, ca. 1860, and the straw hat of the title evokes Manet’s famous picnic scene. But, as conveyed by Brown’s characteristic manic brushstrokes (the sheer amount of paint applied to this canvas!), such references appear richly unreliable. In what felt like the equivalent spot in the upstairs gallery on the similarly enormous canvas stretching nearly nine and a half feet tall by seven and a quarter wide, the same band of naked men in Reclining Blonde with Nudes, 2021, came across suddenly as deranged and sinister. By repeating the composition with a genuine sense that the subject can only be mastered through trying and trying again, Brown produces a deeply spirited kind of doubt as to what is being seen, by whom, and why.

Downstairs, three of the still lifes were painted on top of prints of one painting by Brown (the original of which was not in the show), effectuating the idea of different outcomes of one promising start. This, of course, you’d have to read, since the underlying prints were completely covered. But their shared point of origin was perhaps nonetheless betrayed by a particular hectic intensity, as if what was being depicted was not only the food, flowers, and crockery spread across a dining table, but all the emotional conflict and intensity that might have come out in conversation throughout a long evening. In The Spell, 2021, a face—more like a memory than a presence—appears from out of a flurry of burgundy and pink. I was reminded of the dinner party in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) or the ball in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963): a whole century in a single sitting. This is the outcome of Brown’s layerings and repetitions: The paintings are full both of what was and of what could have been.

With the title Lady and the Swan, Brown seems to have wanted to eschew the weight of Leda’s mythical rape, so famously depicted by Leonardo, Rubens, and others. Perhaps this is because what is told as a story of violence has often been portrayed, from the swan’s perspective, as something more like seduction. Across the eight canvases we witness a scene of ecstatic disintegration, the female form exerting strong sexual power, her legs spread wide as feathers flutter everywhere. The pictures contain the dynamism and danger of Cy Twombly’s 1962 Leda and the Swan as well as an openness toward pleasure as something at once formative and subversive of subjectivity. Vital to this ambiguous pleasure are Brown’s eager but sporadic forays, amid all the feverish abstract brushwork, into figuration. Whether depicting a door, a teapot, or a dick, she does not flinch in the face of banality, and this might just be what allows her work its grandeur.