Cecily Brown at Gagosian and Marc Quinn at Mary Boone
Cecily Brown at Gagosian until February 26
555 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-741-1111
Marc Quinn at Mary Boone until February 26
529 W. 24th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212-752-2929
Cecily Brown discovered, as a teenager, that she was the daughter of the man some believe to have been England’s greatest art writer since Ruskin — and who certainly was an operator on a par with Duveen — the late David Sylvester. This may sound like gossip, but it offers an existential clue about the identity of this young art-world phenomenon.
Ms. Brown’s attitude is postmodern, her tastes figurative, and her modus operandi abstract: This all adds up to art that’s an energetic mess. In her case, the sum of individual parts actually *is* greater than the whole, for hers is an art of beautiful bits and bobs that willfully evade composition, closure, or any kind of sustainable reading.
The darling of fashion magazines and the art establishment alike (at 33, she already had a solo exhibition at the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C., and she has never been shy to trade on her pout and curves), you could say that Ms. Brown made herself a wünderkind precisely out of being a lost child.
There is something about her work that could appeal to traditionalists looking for a radical reinvention of the Old Masters. At the same time, her spunky, rowdy images, riffing on Rubens, Poussin, or — in her latest show at Gagosian — Artemisia Gentileschi, are a turn-on for iconoclasts ever on the lookout for life in the Dada revolution.
The paintings at Gagosian are worked at a new scale and with more overt quotation of specific Old Master paintings than had previously been the norm. For all their sloppy-joe messiness and impoliteness, however, these aren’t “Bad” paintings. They leap-frog the aesthetic terrorism of Currin and Yuskavage — or indeed for that matter the knowing deconstructions of the likes of David Salle — to emulate, directly, her heroes, De Kooning and Bacon, with their at once grander and more innocent expressive ambitions.
Ms. Brown recalls classic dictums of these mid-century existentialists (both of whom were famously interviewed by Sylvester): De Kooning’s, that flesh was the reason oil paint was invented, and Bacon’s quote of Valéry that “what modern man wants is the grin without the cat, the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.”
While we are quoting, let’s not forget the great quip of Renoir, who claimed to paint with his penis. Ms. Brown would have a hard time making the same claim, but on one sweltering New York summer’s day — referencing the French new realist, Yves Klein, who made works in performance pieces by directing nude women to roll onto paper smeared in his trademark blue paint — she apparently did paint with her breasts.
Her paintings always aspire to be high-octane, if not X-rated. Earlier work drew directly from pornographic source materials; the latest efforts eschew overt figuration in favor of frenetic, you might even say ejaculatory non-depictive markmaking. The eroticism is more covert, with the odd stray limb left over from the Old Master source image. It looks as if Ms. Brown has come to realize that her strength lies in the sensation of painting, not in actual composing or depicting (certainly not in drawing, for which she has no aptidude).
To pursue the erotic metaphor invited by her slippery, groping touch (which at times lends new meaning to the word “brushstroke”), Ms. Brown’s art is an elaborate kind of tease. As every gesture is knowingly ambiguous, she withholds any kind of consummation. A champion would ascribe the energy of her work to this Tantric restraint; for a skeptic, though. her brushstrokes are all undressed with nowhere to go.
Ms. Brown, who was born and educated in England, chose to make her career in New York in part because she was alienated by the overt cynicism of the Young British Artists in the ascendant at the time of her move. One of the stars of that movement was the sculptor Marc Quinn.
He, too, is an artist whose aesthetic flushes hot and cold, as it is made up of gestures that read simultaneously as conceptually knowing and expressively earnest. His debut work, which remains his most notorious to date, was the self-portrait in eight pints of his own frozen blood in the Saatchi Collection. Uncannily, the work was simultaneously sick and hieratic, calm and histrionic. He sustained this conundrum in his last show at Mary Boone, in March 2004, of neo-classical carvings portraying maimed athletes: The results were both prurient and thoughtful.
His latest batch of sculptures shifts gear in formal terms from smoothly worked stone to expressive bronze, but makes a similar claim to emotional oxymoron. He has cast found carcasses of beef with at-once heroic and pathetic results. This strategy naturally references Rembrandt’s legendary side of beef, already borrowed by both Soutine and Francis Bacon, with all its Christomorphic connotations.
Equally, the work looks to mid-20th-century expressionist sculpture. If he is playing a joke at the expense of Henry Moore (particularly the latter’s Fallen Warrior series) he joins a whole academy of British sculptors to do so. But the works also look a lot like Marino Marini, Elizabeth Frink, and other modern *animaliers*.
The eye quickly adjusts to the sensationalism surrounding Mr. Quinn’s trip to the abattoir. What is really bizarre about these works is that they are actually rather moving in a quiet, unhistrionic, conservative-figurative kind of a way. It is only the context of Mary Boone and the YBA phenomenon that patinates his bronze with a hint of something subversive.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, January 27, 2005