Though orange, fleshy colors predominate in the canvases comprising Cecily Brown’s third solo exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin, the raw sexuality that characterized much of her early work—and arguably brought her to fame—is conspicuously absent. What we’re left with is a peculiar, perhaps even eccentric version of pure painting with the occasionally recurring motif of a figure reclining upside down.
In Nine Nine Nine, 2009, this figure makes its first appearance, his or her wild hair and forehead forming a fantastic sprawl in the lower portion of the canvas. (Brown stated in an earlier interview that she often frets over how to fill the bottom quarter of her canvases; here, and in many other paintings in the exhibition, she has clearly put great effort into using this lower portion as a foundational support.) Perhaps that is a kitchen in the upper right hand corner; the rest of the background has been lost in a worried heat of competing tonalities.
Most of the paintings on the first of the two-floor exhibition reveal a muted palette, giving the surfaces a matte effect. The electric orange burning through much of Lady with a Little Dog, 2009-2010, distinguish it as one of the few “bright” paintings in the show. It harmonizes nicely with an oceanic purple-blue on the lower half of the canvas, establishing a flowing motif to satisfy us motion addicts. The splotchy brushwork near the top is also exciting. In fact, Brown’s brushwork is always very purposeful. No tentativeness here, none of the losing-oneself-in-the-process expressivities of earlier Abstract Expressionists—at least not in these recent works. Brown has always felt the need to cover every inch of the canvas in paint. Nothing hints at an underlying surface, and no surface is permitted to give shape to the overall design of the picture. Yet there is something controlled about her handling of paint. Her brushes are thick, the line is allowed to dominate, no impasto allowed; one need look no further than a painting like Jicky, 2009-2010, to see the evidence.
The brownish-orange/black/white theme begins to tire by the time you arrive at the smallest canvas in the show, Envy, 2009-2010. Indeed, Brown is not at her best when working in miniature. Ghost Wanted, 2009, at 65 by 43 inches, is another relatively small work, and also among Brown’s most minor; it is as though she felt the need to reduce the scope of her brushwork in order to accommodate the diminutive size of the canvas, using much smaller brushes and strokes. The result is something of a “test canvas,” a Pollock throwaway.
Another casual group of larger paintings harks back to 2004 works, like Thanks, Roody Hooster, in color and arrangement. Bandit, 2010, is the most emblematic of these, with several figures nearly emerging from the vertical strokes in the center of the painting, bringing to mind George Condo’s recent expressionistic group portraits.
All in all, it has to be said that there is a formal rigidity here that was absent in Brown’s earlier work, implying that she may well be on her to becoming a “painter’s painter”—a sort of polite way of saying “academic.” Over the years, her work has gone from being sexual to messy to pretty, finally arriving at the classical language of Abstract Expressionism—a language she has long flirted with, but never tried to blatantly emulate until now. There is such a thing as too much control in painting. Ultimately, I’m not convinced that Brown’s latest paintings are animated by any inner necessity. While they may be executed aptly, the fact remains that they are merely executed.