It is against this backdrop that Cecily Brown’s Untitled (Jesus Christ) must be seen. A radical re-imagination of this storied subject matter, Brown has boldly reinvigorated perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in the history of art. Seamlessly incorporating her instantly recognisable style within this well-known narrative, Brown has reaffirmed the place of this grand religious image within an increasingly secular artistic age.
Thick engulfing layers of oil paint cushion Christ’s body, now dead with weight. A series of ever-sagging arms convey the sense of Christ’s lifeless mass hanging ever move tortuously from the nails in wrists. With the cross shrouded beneath Brown’s gestural paintwork, it is as if the paint itself is supporting Christ’s body. Blood soaks itself into the canvas. With each streak of ghostly blue that she applies into, onto and around Christ’s body, it feels as if Brown is literally painting the life out of Christ. Yet all the while his cold blue skin, almost soulless in its transparency, is tantalisingly close to rich passages of vibrant paintwork.
In this cacophony of pictorial noise, the influence of Hieronymus Bosch is unmistakable. Bosch is an artist that Brown cherishes, partly for his busy fantastical scenes, but more for his bold use of colour and his unrivalled ability to create pictorial order out of chaos, to build energy across a canvas without losing control of it. Acutely aware of her place within painting’s long history, Brown’s work is rarely rooted in the real world. In its frenetic sense of overcrowding, it may be of our time, but it does not depict it. Instead, she is in conversation with the past, remixing masterpieces with her own blend of abstracted figuration. Cezanne, Titian, Rubens, Degas, Manet, Chardin and Watteau are all visual mining grounds for Brown’s surreal landscapes.
There are few artists today that delve into art history with such radical force as Cecily Brown. Anchored by her love for Willem De Kooning and Francis Bacon, her paintings – exemplified by Untitled (Jesus Christ) – suggest her canonical knowledge of Western art yet more importantly her bravery to not be cowed by it. In this, she’s joins at the helm of a group of post-modern painters such as John Currin, Damien Loeb, Matthew Richtie bolding leading painting’s resurrection down new unfathomable critical avenues. In her own words, ‘this is an intoxicating time to be painting’ (Cecily Brown, ‘Painting Epiphany’, Flash Art. August 2008, online).
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