‘Painting is closest to poetry of all the arts: not being able to explain something, why does one thing sound so great next to another? You can’t put your finger on it, that’s what my work’s about’
‘It’s not there in an overt way, but what I want is that feeling, without being explicit about it. Painting and sex have things in common, you have a frustration when you’re not doing it, it’s a physical urge that can’t be fulfilled by anything else. I’ll be really moody if I haven’t been painting for a few days’
Included on the front cover of her major 2010- 11 exhibition Based on a True Story, Cecily Brown’s Lady with a Little Dog (2009-10) is an incandescent paradise of fleshy form and vivid colour. Spanning over two metres in height, its maelstrom of oranges, pinks, greys, purples and cool greens gradually discloses a reclined female form. Her legs, indicated in lush strokes against a background of busy, flashing chromatic contrasts, are parted. The titular lapdog can be glimpsed in a soft blur to the left of her head. The painting’s monumental scale, sumptuous hues and liquid brushstrokes conjure an atmosphere of indulgence, luxury and private pleasure without indicating any narrative: shimmering between abstraction and figuration, Brown’s distinctive idiom is not fixed or concrete but richly suggestive. Her work celebrates the sensuous qualities that are unique to oil painting alone, rejoicing in its inherent, tantalising tactility, and its reflection of every subtle nuance of the artist’s touch. Lady with a Little Dog exemplifies her use of the full potential of the palette, and her intimate, orchestral understanding of colour. While any motif that Brown holds in her mind while she paints remains deliberately elusive, the subject here can also be seen to playfully address the tension of works by artists such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard, whose 18th-century genre paintings of women with small dogs were charged with barely repressed eroticism. Brown releases the latent sensuality of these boudoir scenes in an explosion of carnal energy. Her lavish, molten daubs of paint echo the opulent material settings of such works, but transcend any depiction of silken drapery or bedclothes to indulge in the pure physical bliss of paint as medium.
Willem de Kooning once claimed that flesh is the reason oil paint was invented, and Brown readily agrees. ‘I think when I was doing a lot of sexual paintings,’ she has said, ‘what I wanted ... was for the paint to embody the same sensations that bodies would. Oil paint very easily suggests bodily fluids and flesh’ (C. Brown, quoted in G. Wood, ‘I like the cheap and nasty’, The Observer, 12 June 2005). Although Lady with a Little Dog is less directly figurative than some of these early paintings, its voluptuous force is unmistakable, the paint pulsing and fluorescing with life as if backlit by a bonfire. When she emerged as a painter in 1990s London, this epic, sensual approach stood Brown in startling contrast to her more conceptual YBA contemporaries. While far from traditional, her work also operates in a captivating dialogue with the painters of the past, from the macho Abstract Expressionism of de Kooning and Pollock to Old Masters such as Bosch, Brueghel and Titian. Even as she unfolds to fresh frontiers of visceral abstraction, her paintings speak with their language and seduce with their lessons. As she has explained, ‘The more I look at paintings, the more I want to paint, the more engaged I become and the deeper and richer it gets’ (C. Brown, quoted in R. Enright, ‘Paint Whisperer: An Interview with Cecily Brown’, Border Crossings, no. 93, February 2005, p. 40).
Relishing the tension between representation and direct sensory experience, Brown’s works embrace the enigmatic, thriving off the fact that painting does not need to provide a coherent reading. Instead, she aims to invite active visual connections within the mind of the viewer. ‘The place I’m interested in’, she has said, ‘is where the mind goes when it’s trying to make up for what isn’t there’ (C. Brown, quoted in R. Evrén, ‘A Dispatch from the Tropic of Flesh’, Cecily Brown, exh. cat. Gagosian Gallery, New York 2000, p. 8). Lady with a Little Dog, with its flurries of flesh tones and alluring figural contours, draws the viewer irresistibly into its heady world of sight and touch while deliberately withholding clarity. ‘It’s not there in an overt way,’ Brown explains, ‘but what I want is that feeling, without being explicit about it. Painting and sex have things in common, you have a frustration when you’re not doing it, it’s a physical urge that can’t be fulfilled by anything else. I’ll be really moody if I haven’t been painting for a few days’ (C. Brown, quoted in J. Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT: Cecily Brown’, Financial Times, 10 June 2016). Driven by chromatic vigour, painterly action and bodily momentum, Lady with a Little Dog is a ravishing bacchanal of a work, alive with the joy of a grand, passionate love affair with paint.