The erotic relationship between looking and doing, between returning and repeating, between caressing, rubbing and scratching, is the subject of this aptly named exhibition, Cecily Brown: Rehearsal, at The Drawing Center (October 7 – December 18, 2016), curated by Claire Gilman. According to the press release, this is “the artist’s first solo museum show in New York and the first exhibition dedicated to her drawings.” More importantly, the drawings form a distinct body separate from Brown’s paintings and, as the inclusion of her sketchbooks suggests, were not done with an eye toward exhibiting them.
The exhibition encompasses work done in three different formats: modestly sized works on paper in which the artist used a variety of mediums (ballpoint pen, ink, watercolor, gouache, pastel and pencil); large scale works on paper that employ oil paint in addition to some of the materials I have already listed; and sketchbooks in which the page is half as high as it is long, offering a chance for fragmented, multiple, and cinematic views. I have to admit that I was more interested in the modestly sized works on paper and the sketchbooks.
All of the drawings are based on a preexisting image, be it a Pieter Breughel’s painting, “Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559), the cover of Jimi Hendrix’s album, Electric Ladyland (1968), the salacious drawings of the decadent Austrian artist, Franz von Bayros, or Edgar Degas’ painting “Young Spartans Exercising (1860). She may combine elements from different sources and, in a number of works, she depicts an onlooker in the corner of her composition, a surrogate for both artist and viewer. By returning to these artists and their works, through multiple explorations of a detail that she has isolated and enhanced, Brown pays homage to works that engage and challenge her. In a conversation with Gilman, she said: “learning to draw is teaching yourself how to see, or making something you want to see.” Instead of trying to prove her mastery, Brown becomes an inquisitive student intent on learning how one artist did something (drew a sinuous line or twist a form languidly in space). Like the pianist who practices a piece she already knows by heart, she is attentive to the tenuous bond between eye and hand, while consciously reinforcing her muscle memory.
While critics writing about these drawings have mentioned that her sources include William Hogarth, Breughel and Degas, I am more interested in her work based on drawings and prints by von Bayros and the French artist and lithographer Achille Devéria, because they are hardly known to the public. Brown is genuinely interested in all the ways a body experiencing pleasure can occupy space. In her drawings she records the results of her curiosity, her looking. At the same time, by documenting only portions of von Bayros’ works, or homing in on a particular detail, Brown’s intentions are clearly about the pleasure of drawing, rather than the production of a finished product. Moreover, whereas pornography is about the demonstration of power, and the death of the imagination, the erotic is about the giving and receiving of pleasure and the continual shifting of power.
It seems to me that this show sets a precedent. Perhaps, because we have been so busy celebrating art that is synonymous with capitalism’s love of material excess and consumption, it would take an artist from another country to change perceptions about drawing with modest means. She may not convince the large swaths of the art world that, in obeisance to the 1% and its love of trophies, are happy to celebrate artists who don’t draw and don’t use their imagination. But for those who care about such things, Brown’s interest in sex and the erotic — often played out in bacchanalian landscapes of lusciously stroked and churned paint — has been a great engine for change in American art, which has long been marked by repression, shame, misogyny, and prudery.
Born in England in 1969 and relocating to America in 1995, Brown seems not to have been inflicted with Calvinist morality. Starting in 1997, with her exhibition Spectacle at Deitch Projects, her shows in New York have directly or indirectly helped pave the way for a number of women artists, including the amazing Angela Dufresne, who was born the same year as Brown. In fact, Brown and other women artists have succeeded in shifting attention away from the commonplace trope of men looking at women, and their rather tiresome displays of masculinity.
What distinguishes Brown from many American artists (mostly men) who depict female nudes is her lack of self-hatred. She is uninterested in belittling or distorting her figures, showing how much power she can exert over them. That’s what is so interesting about these drawings — they come from looking at the work of other artists and responding to it. They are about inhabiting someone else’s line or composition, not appropriating or conquering it. She can fill a page with figures drawn after Hogarth or, in another work interpreting the same artist, leave much of page empty.
Looking at Brown’s robust, rollicking figures with their lopsided grins, I am reminded of William Shakespeare’s marvelous characters Cleopatra and Falstaff, both of whom overflow the boundaries of their physical being. This seems to me one reason why Brown is drawn to Breughel, Hogarth, and the other artists she attends to with her lines and washes. In their robust exertions and ecstatic smiles, she glimpses that moment where body (or the form) loses control, achieving a state bordering in dissolution. It is one thing to control a line and another to surrender it. Brown does both. It is a marvel that viewers should dawdle over, as well as immerse themselves in.
Cecily Brown: Rehearsal continues at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through December 18.