Paul Valéry, ‘The Conquest of Ubiquity’ (1928), Aesthetics, tr. Ralph Mannheim, New York 1964, p. 225.
Of all the countless artists who have engaged with the capacity of technology to affect artistic production since Paul Valéry’s famous 1928 essay, none have done so with the sensitivity, intelligence and innovation that characterise Glenn Brown’s work since the early 1990s. Rather than revelling in its glitches and shortcomings in the style of Wade Guyton or Wolfgang Tillmans, or fearing its damaging potential like Keith Haring or Joseph Beuys, Brown embraces the unique image-making capacity afforded to him by programs such as Photoshop. Starting with an image by a canonical artist Brown implements a metamorphosis of distortion and inversion. Colours are altered, formations cropped and stretched, compositions mirrored and flipped – the work is made to bend to the artist’s will. In so doing, Brown breathes new life into the works of often long-dead artists. In his words, “I am rather like Dr. Frankenstein, constructing paintings out of the residue or dead parts of other artist’s work” (Glenn Brown in conversation with Rochelle Steiner in: Exh. Cat., London, Serpentine Gallery, Glenn Brown, 2004, p. 95).
It is this process of invention that distinguishes Brown’s work from the American appropriation artists of the 1980s. The stitching together of works by multiple artists and the invention that follows the projection of the Photoshopped image onto the canvas, such as the addition of impasto brush marks where none had previously existed and the addition of bright highlights, together constitute forceful insertions of the artist’s hand into what would otherwise be an exercise in transposition (Michael Stubbs, ‘Glenn Brown: No Visible Means of Support’, in: Exh. Cat. Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, Glenn Brown, 2009, p. 103). Indeed, Brown himself has always been keen to dissociate himself from the movement, noting that the term “seems only to express a certain conceptual framework and obliterates any painterly or aesthetic understanding involved” (Glenn Brown cited in: Exh. Cat. New York, Gagosian Gallery, Glenn Brown: Three Exhibitions, 2009, p. 111). Although conceptually rigorous, there is a significant emphasis on technique and craft in Brown’s exacting practice, which sees the artist spend hours creating a precise, flattened simulacrum of an Expressionist ‘moment’ of inspiration.
Senile Youth epitomises the position of Brown’s work at the intersection of art and technology, appropriation and invention. Based on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting Diana and Endymion (National Gallery, Washington D.C.) from the mid-Eighteenth Century, Brown presents us with a back-lit theatrical monstrosity that apes Fragonard’s painting; the peaches, pinks and blushing reds replaced by a deathly blue pallor punctuated by violent bursts of vermillion, smooth and limber flesh supplanted by veined and distended body parts. Indeed, even the underlying myth that Fragonard depicts, that of the beautiful Endymion put into an eternal slumber by Zeus so that the virginal Diana can descend nightly to plant an innocent kiss upon his cheek, is lampooned in Senile Youth, with the overtly sexual forms created by Brown in his studio undermining any notion of chastity. Further, the title of the work pokes fun at the Greek myth, that speaks of eternal youth through sleep, which Brown implies to be merely an outward appearance of youth which belies Endymion’s age-induced senility.
Just as importantly however is the position of Fragonard and the Rococo in general within modern art historical discourse. Unlike many of the masters with whom Glenn Brown battles, such as Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Frank Auerbach, whose elevated position within the art historical canon by dint of their Expressionist brushstrokes Brown remains highly critical of, Fragonard has fallen out of favour. His compositions are saccharine; indeed, despite his brushstrokes, Fragonard could hardly be further from the prototypical Expressionist painter, whose every movement betrays the contents of his soul. The pictures are loaded with sentimentality opposed to reflecting the sentiment of the artist, who is simply a conduit for something eternal. In short, unlike his Dutch predecessor Rembrandt, Fragonard is defiantly not modern. However, this may be precisely the reason that his work appeals to Brown, who eschews fashion. Indeed, in his eyes even his technique flies in the face of the current vogue. In Brown’s words, “My desire to paint with dexterity is due to the fact that it is seen as bad taste. To use skill and craftsmanship is vulgar to the art establishment” (Ibid., p. 112).
Despite this dexterity, and despite our knowledge of the source material for the work, there is a degree of ambiguity and fluidity present in Senile Youth that denies us ease of interpretation. In the artist’s words, this formlessness can be “a subversive or degenerate tool. It implies that no single perception is correct… There is no perfect form, it is the slippage between forms that is important” (Glenn Brown in conversation with Laurence Sillars in: Exh. Cat. Tate Liverpool, op.cit., p. 144). The peculiar capacity of formlessness to effect this implication is pivotal. Brown’s art demands that the viewer acknowledge the liminal space that he creates. It is a space not only between forms but between media, between high minded art historical concept and bawdy sexual jokes. They are works that exist because of technology’s capacity to reproduce, and yet through Brown’s interventions deny it the pleasure of doing so. Relentlessly altering and updating Fragonard’s painting, Brown creates something entirely new. In his words, “Within a Fragonard painting… I feel as if the artist was less involved in getting an exact likeness and more intent on making an interesting picture… but by the time I have finished transforming and warping the image that person has disappeared almost completely - only a ghost remains” (Glenn Brown in conversation with Rochelle Steiner, in: op. cit., p. 99).
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