In 1995, not long after he first began creating virtuoso paintings of manipulated works by established artists, Glenn Brown ventured into the three-dimensional realm. As a natural counterpart to his outrageously slick and smoothly rendered paintings – whose aim has always been to revive the practice of painting in spite of post-modernity’s declaration of its obsolescence – the sculptures bring to life the faithfully rendered brushstrokes and dense materiality that the photographic surfaces of Brown’s paintings famously deny. Loaded with irony and underscored by a healthy dose of black humour, these works form an integral part of Brown’s complex practice, an approach to artmaking that is, in the artist’s own words, “about playing games with what happens when you reveal truth and fakery” (Glenn Brown in conversation with Stephen Hepworth, ‘“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”, Interview, London, May 2000’, in: Exh. Cat., Bignan, Domaine de Kerguéhennec, Glenn Brown, 2000, p. 70). Created in 2000, the present work was submitted as part of the Brown’s Turner prize exhibition of the same year and has since been a stalwart feature of the artist’s major survey shows to date, including those at the Serpentine Gallery (2004) and Tate Liverpool (2009).
Brown’s three-dimensional paintings call to mind the early sculpture of Picasso or even Jackson Pollock’s attempt to give the material loops and swirls of his paintings volume and form. In contrast to the highly controlled execution of his paintings in which tiny brushes exaggerate the painterly flourishes associated with Brown’s subjects (among which are paintings by Rembrandt and Fragonard through to Dalí, Karel Appel and Frank Auerbach), the sculptures are free and loose, bold and visceral. Elongated and stretched, amorphous and yet distinctly figurative, Petrushka looks like the sitter in an Auerbach painting brought to life. Speaking with Glenn Brown in 2000, curator Stephen Hepworth comments that Brown’s Auerbach-hybrids “are like masks of tragic clowns”; a description that speaks to the innate clownishness of Brown’s practice and its most resounding manifestation in the artist’s three dimensional work (Stephen Hepworth, ‘“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me”, Interview, London, May 2000’, op. cit., p. 66). As Alison Gingeras argues, “When working in this three-dimensional format, Brown’s hands are no longer dematerialized. They become vessels for a bawdy and indulgent exploration of painting’s flesh” (Alison Gingeras, ‘Guilty: The Work of Glenn Brown’, in: Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Glenn Brown, 2004, p. 17). The present work’s title, Petrushka, further underlines this point.
Petrushka is the Russian folklore version of the Italian commedia dell’arte, Pulnicella, while in Britain, the equivalent Mr. Punch is the murderous protagonist in the slap-stick Punch and Judy puppet shows that are widely associated with bawdy sea-side entertainment. The choice of title here is particularly telling of Brown’s core artistic mission, which aims at bringing painting back to life through a project of extravagant imitation or ‘clowning’ of art historical precedent. Culturally and historically (particularly in the works of Shakespeare), clowns, fools and jesters occupy a dual role: they are both trickster and bringer of truth, at once popular and unsettling. Although commonly from the lower echelons of society, the fool will always triumph in outwitting their social superiors. This cultural archetype provides an illuminating framework through which to unpack Brown’s practice of painting, particularly his deference to the vulgar and culturally low. In his work paragons of high art are melded with the worlds of science fiction, popular music, film and television; they are irreverently manipulated and replicated in kitschy colours by a virtuoso painter whose skills many would consider unnecessary for a relevant contemporary art practice. However, it is precisely through the low, the popular, the clownish, and unfashionable that Brown reclaims painting, injects it with new life, and carves out a new function and future for it. As such, Brown is a great believer in the power of humour, specifically black humour, to grant access to a wider spectrum of human emotion. That Brown sees Jeff Koons as a role model for what can be done to deconstruct the high and elevate the wonderfully vulgar is thus of no surprise (Glenn Brown in conversation with Stephen Hepworth, op. cit., p. 67).
While created in the round, Brown does not regard his three-dimensional work as sculpture. In creating these pieces, the guiding principles of colour, form and movement remain the same as those applied to his two-dimensional paintings. Together, both paintings and their three-dimensional hybrids assert a new conceptual and emotional dimension in contemporary art that simultaneously reaffirms the creative painterly autonomy of the artist. To quote David Freedberg, Glenn Brown presents a “final laugh in the face of death, a sign of the life that is avowedly embodied in all of Brown’s work, the life that he encourages spectators to find both in the impossibly flat pictures and in the all too fleshy sculptures” (David Freedberg, op. cit., p. 10).
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