Titled The Skin of Our Teeth – a phrase that conjures a narrow escape from disaster – this painting perhaps refers to Thomas Wilder’s play of the same name, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1943. Across three acts the play forms an allegory for the plight of mankind; although set in modern times, the characters draw on classical and mythological archetypes while the disaster-fuelled narrative of the play underlines its central conceit: mankind’s incessant ability to survive – by the skin of our teeth. Brown has frequently bestowed literary titles upon her paintings – Anton Checkhov’s A Lady with the Little Dog and W. B. Yeats’ Circus Animals’ Desertion are two such examples of literary works whose titles have been appropriated by Brown for paintings created in 2009-10 and 2013 respectively. Furthermore, alongside the literary world, Pop culture references also play an important role for Brown; for example, in 2013 she embarked on an entire series based on the famous photograph of nude women that graces the front cover of Jimi Hendrix’s classic album, Electric Ladyland (1968).
Executed in luscious pinks, hot reds, peachy flesh tones and accented with swipes of yellow and black, the present work is among the most corporeal of Brown’s oeuvre; and yet, one struggles to locate the explicit anatomical inclusions that insidiously punctuate her works on canvas. Instead, the viewer’s eye roves across the scatological slippages and spills that loosely delineate what may be a buttock, leg, or breast; each limb or body part writhes in concert within the thronging mass of Brown’s undeniably orgiastic panorama.
Sexuality has played a central role in Brown’s work since the very beginning. Her first exhibition with Gagosian Gallery in 1999 – the same year the present work was painted – was called Skin Game and showed works characterised by their overtly sexual nature. As Brown has explained: “I think I was doing a lot of sexual paintings… what I wanted – in a way that I think now is too literal – was for the paint to embody the same sensations that bodies would. Oil paint very easily suggests bodily fluids and flesh… I've always wanted to have a lot of different ways of saying something… so that you might have a veil of paint that suggests some very delicate skin, but then I'll want something very meaty and clogged next to it” (Cecily Brown in conversation with Gaby Wood in: Gaby Wood, ‘I Like it Cheap and Nasty’, The Guardian, 12 June 2005, online). Belonging to this same moment, The Skin of Our Teeth promiscuously flits between a manifold field of provocative association and meaning. Indeed, the skin and teeth of the painting’s title works to underline the carnality of Brown’s composition. Skin and teeth, flesh and bone – the stuff of animalistic human existence – is borne forth through a painterly frenzy in which boundaries are transgressed and the body becomes landscape.
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