Flowing planar brushstrokes intermingle with staccato dashes in Cecily Brown’s Chestnut and Snowball, erupting into a luscious climax of rose, black, white and blue. The present work, executed in 2013, follows Cecily Brown’s long exploration of abstraction and figuration, sex and eroticism. Emblematic of her later work, where titles no longer signify sexually explicit content, the painting exemplifies the artist’s ability to engender complex and conflicted sensations in viewers through painting.
Injecting the Old Masters’ command of figurative depiction with the bold, gestural marks of Abstract Expressionism, Brown’s paintings conjure scenes of entwined bodies writhing in pleasure. Her canvases covered in nude tones and rosy hues represent her answer to the age-old rivalry between mind and body. Whereas the paintings of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman speak of the human mind’s transcendental qualities, Brown brings the spirit back down to earth, returning it to its bodily vessel, and reminds us of the mind’s dependence on corporeal sensations and experiences.
Allusions to sex and sexuality are ever present in the artist's work and are impossible to pin down. Her wild brushstrokes and interplay of flesh tones conjure glances of body parts shifting in orgiastic frenzy. But contours of limbs constantly elude categorisation, always seeming to metamorphose into something else under our gaze. Unlike the women of Picasso’s Demoiselles and De Kooning’s portraits, whose sexual appetite earn them an almost bestial quality, Brown’s soft painted forms float outside of sexual politics of gender, race and identity. Her scenes are intimate and inviting rather than judgmental and shaming. Eschewing figurative depictions of specific individuals, Brown posits sexuality as a universal quality uniting, instead of dividing, people.
Chestnut and Snowball's mesmerising palette of pink, white and black evokes the image of the park at winter, with scenes of people huddling and passing through Christmas fairs under swaying pine trees, dodging to their left and right as children wage their snowball fights around them: a wholesome scene. Yet our preconceived notions regarding Brown’s practice, along with the painting’s recognisably pink, phallic strokes, fills the otherwise deeply innocent scene with an undertone of sexual tension. Like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit illusion, which flicks between the two animals at the merest suggestion, Chestnut and Snowball shifts between the child-like public fair and the private intimacy of the bedroom with each glance. One can’t help but wonder whether it was the artist or themselves who planted the erotic thoughts in their mind.
Applying sensitive touches of paint on canvas, Brown has turned the present work into an opportunity for viewers to question not only the artist’s intentions, but their deep-seated relationship to sex and eroticism. Just as the painting seems to shift before one’s eyes, the process of perception and interior dialogue is constantly ongoing. As Brown herself remarks, “[i]t’s about looking and what you get from allowing the imagery to shift and change. There isn’t a final destination” (Cecily Brown cited in: Exh. Cat., Hanover, Kestnergesellschaft, Cecily Brown: Based on a True Story, 2010, p. 67).
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