“Brown seems to be making viscerally visual the mental processes that comprise the creation of a painting. She does not speak of figure painting or abstraction, but of sensations like tearing apart skin”
D eeply arresting and seductive, Cecily Brown’s 2012 canvas The Year of the Scavenger, reveals the artist’s prodigious amalgamation of opposites: bold improvisation and conscious control, painterly abstraction and figurative allusion. Through loose, brazen brushstrokes, Brown’s composition becomes a landscape of bodies and faces, as fleshy pink and brown pigment metamorphose into abundant, crowded, and serpentine-like forms.
Critic and curator Klaus Kertess explains: “Brown seems to be making viscerally visual the mental processes that comprise the creation of a painting. She does not speak of figure painting or abstraction, but of sensations like tearing apart skin” (Klaus Kertess cited in: Exh. Cat., Rome, Gagosian Gallery, Cecily Brown, 2011, p. 9).
The artist’s chosen symbiosis of abstraction and figuration challenges our ways of seeing and further questions the clarity with which we can read a painting. Indeed, Brown’s volatile brushwork in spectacular tones of apricot, crimson, coral and mahogany evokes the complexity of human perception, compelling viewers to question the idea of fixed meanings on the surface of her works. Brown asserts, “Just when you think you know what you’re looking at, you see something else” (Cecily Brown cited in: ibid., p. 22).
Throughout her oeuvre, Brown often references popular culture through film, literature or music, and the present work’s title, The Year of the Scavenger, is derived from the lyrics of David Bowie’s 1974 hit Diamond Dogs, which begins, “This ain’t rock n’ roll, this is genocide!” The third verse ambiguously continues, “In the year of the scavenger, the season of the bitch / Sashay on the boardwalk, scurry to the ditch / Just another future song, lonely little kitsch / (There’s gonna be sorrow) try and wake up tomorrow”.
There is no doubt that the song’s overtly-punk visions of nefarious chaos and nihilistic lovers (“We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band / Then jump in the river holding hands”) echoes Brown’s hedonistic, even orgiastic, composition. While Bowie’s words are central to the title of the present work, The Year of the Scavenger is also part of a pivotal body of large-scale paintings executed in 2012 which take their compositional structure from the 1968 record cover of Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The cover of the British release was a studio photograph of 19 nude women, shot by David Montgomery, all of whom had been selected by the photographer and his art director one evening at a nightclub. Akin to Brown’s painterly composition, the photograph provides a staged tableau in which the nude figures confront the viewer with a certain immediacy – through definite eye contact – yet appear equally oblivious to each other’s presence.
Art critic and historian James Lawrence asserts, “Most depictions of nudes, unless idealised, place the viewer in the position of a privileged observer: an intimate, or else a voyeur who has arrogated the privileges of intimacy. Brown has explored both modes throughout the past… In this recent series, however, the viewer’s observation meets with persistent and depersonalised scrutiny… We might not be so willing to acknowledge it with a single figure, or even two or three.
These groups, however, constitute crowds not only in number and proximity, but also in their general mood of accidental commonality. It’s not clear why the figures belong together” (James Lawrence cited in: New York, Gagosian Gallery, Cecily Brown, 2013, p. 10). On the surface of The Year of the Scavenger, Brown’s painterly fluidity and quick brushstrokes deconstruct the original composition of Montgomery’s photograph, leaving the audience with only a vague suggestion of forms; giving visual expression to the artist’s assertion, “something that’s just glimpsed seems more real than something that’s fully described” (Cecily Brown cited in: ibid., p. 13).
Brown’s deeply considered articulation of the female nude, as well as the notion of voyeurism undeniably ingrained within her visual exploration, resonates with a plethora of art historical sources. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is an obvious point of reference as fleshy female bodies are fractured on the picture plane through the artist’s early, ground-breaking synthesis of abstraction and figuration. Even the colours – sumptuous blush, umber, teal and cream – echo Brown’s frenetic array of pigment.
The five figures in Picasso’s masterpiece engage the viewer, yet they do not interact with each other: they are poised on a stage for the viewer’s pleasure. While Picasso magnificently enhances the theatrics of the scene by framing it with a curtain, Brown’s tableau in The Year of the Scavenger is more mysterious, fantastical even, as the eye tries to piece together her labyrinth of figures and forms.
Brown’s lush panoply of impassioned brushstrokes further recalls the spectacular bravura of Willem de Kooning, and in brilliant shades of sherbert orange and jewel-like pink, the richly tactile Untitled VI (1980, Private Collection) offers yet another art historical reference point plundered by Brown. Indeed, her depiction of the female nude through highly immersive brushwork is an affirmation of de Kooning’s celebrated mantra that "flesh was the reason oil paint was invented" (Willem de Kooning cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Saville, 2018, p. 8).
Brown truly is the beneficiary of her predecessors, as she looks to Picasso and de Kooning in her own manifestation of a highly unique, galvanic aesthetic vocabulary. Through a triumph of tumultuous beauty, The Year of the Scavenger is a spectacular embodiment of Brown’s attempts to join the carnality and fleshiness of the human body with the intrinsic qualities of oil paint. In such a way, Brown imparts a challenge to our own, very human experience of seeing in the contemporary age.