6 September - 12 October 2013
Gagosian Beverly Hills
by Shana Nys Dambrot
Cecily Brown is a classicist, and an iconoclast. Steeped in art history she seems nevertheless to be blenderizing, or at least Bowdlerizing, it. Her stance toward the contemporary painting discourse is seductive and subversive, lavish and maddening, fine, frantic, and more than a little fauvist. Her recent exhibition at Gagosian Beverly Hills was her first show in Los Angeles in ten years, and locals were clamoring -- with these triumphant, expansive, evolutionary and impossible paintings, Brown did not disappoint. Displaying a measured turbulence, this show was a hushed but stirring spectacle, presenting paintings that veiled their own images in flickering shadow, like an opera staged by candlelight.
Brown’s dappled, slathered painting technique owes its confident looseness to achievements in abstraction, but the compositions are at their best when there’s just enough obvious imagery off which to bounce your perceptions. Entry points into this kind of pigment riot are crucial to the experience, not only because the brain is built to search for any pictorial port in the storm, as it were; but also because the mind is engaged in an act of discovery, in solving the puzzle, and having done so, is free to enjoy the tumult on its own terms. Groups of figures, all nude as a matter of art-historical reference, are crowded together in what is probably the outdoors, as there are peripheral elements suggesting parkland or maybe the beach. There are multiple light sources, but what good are shadows in this jungle of pigment. And anyway the light is really coming from inside the paint, with a luminosity imparted by the brush that keeps the surface activated like reflected sunlight on a stream. But then there’s an upraised arm, the clear curve of a spine, heavy feet and ankles, a hand, a breast, a fall of dark hair framing lovely female face, an elbow bent for leaning-upon. How can they be lovely, rendered in sickly pink, dusky purple, limey green, dirty blue? How can they be enacting emotional events, fighting, preening, nuzzling, staring back? It’s wondrous enough that they can be seen at all, much less that they can be understood as acting in a story.
But while it’s true that the figures activate the deepest magic, there is still a wealth of ebullience and verve in the “purely” abstract passages representing the grounds and the dissolved-into jumbles of the settings. Throughout the riots of nuanced color, an abundance of brush strokes pulls apart in an eccentric directionality that counterbalances itself with that very tension, so that one senses that removing a single green stripe would cause it all to come down like a Jenga tower. Fundamentally, these paintings are built on paradox. But as Brown’s current spirit guide, Edgar Degas, famously said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine, Contributing Editor to Art Ltd., and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Huffington Post, The Creators Project, Vs. Magazine, Palm Springs Life, Montage, Desert Magazine, LA Review of Books, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for art books and exhibition catalogs, curates and/or juries a few exhibitions each year, sometimes exhibits her photography and publishes short fiction, and speaks in public at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. An account of her activities is sometimes updated at sndx.net.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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