Dangerous Tangles: Cecily Brown, Rosy Keyser and the Undoing of Images
Cecily Brown: The English Garden at Maccarone
May 9 to June 20, 2015
98 Morton Street (at Washington Street)
New York, 212 431 4977
Rosy Keyser: The Hell Bitch at Maccarone
April 25 to June 6, 2015
630 Greenwich Street (at Morton Street)
New York, 212 431 4977
There are two great exhibitions of painting on view at Maccarone Gallery; one bucks a characteristic trend of its creator and the other is just plain bucking. Cecily Brown’s show, “The English Garden,” is a rarity for the intimate scale of the work. For an artist who generally puts up enormous canvases that dominate entire rooms, it is something special to see almost 30 paintings that could each be carried under arm. More so because these small paintings seem to casually maintain the artist’s robust visual swagger. Nearby, Rosy Keyser’s “The Hell Bitch” approximates in 13 new pieces what profane sanctification might look like. It is thrilling and violent, truly sublime in the most classical sense.
Both shows have a totally different genesis, though in a sense the works themselves share a process-oriented methodology. Brown’s show includes paintings made over a span of years — 2005 to 2014 — that were brought together thanks to the suggestion of Jim Lewis, an acclaimed writer and friend of the artist. By contrast, almost all of the works in “The Hell Bitch” were created in 2015, and in that sense represent a consciously developed body of work. The synchronicity is in the visual vocabulary of two artists who do not know when they begin a painting what it will come to be when it’s finished. Each uses her tools to greatly different ends, though both imbue their work with a sparky primal energy that could light up a forge.
Brown is a British artist, so it’s fair to assume she knows a thing or two about English gardens. The gallery’s take is that if her big paintings are considered landscapes, then these smaller works are gardens. It’s a nice analogy but it falls apart when we consider that English gardens are essentially idealized landscapes. But what’s impressive is the work, which is lush, busy, burning with kind of anti-gravity. The wonderful gestural quality of Brown’s characteristic full-body brushstrokes is carried out here with flicks of the wrist. Occasionally a figure or a face will emerge from the zippy mix — in one work there is a teepee — but more often the paintings hew to a firmer abstraction.
This is the case in two paintings I thought particularly good, Land of the Free, (2008) and Oh I do like to be beside the seaside (2014). Both seem to have been drawn from inside the eye of a tempest, with the paint laid out in a slashing multi-directional bend. The colors are many but the chromatic range is tight. A black-hole kind of density is established, as if the thin layers of oil paint were formerly room size and have been condensed to fit the diminutive frame. They seem at once very serious and utterly reckless, which is exactly how great art looks: daring and effortless, though we know implicitly that this is the illusion of a master.
“The Hell Bitch” is equally forceful and certainly more visceral than “The English Garden.” If Brown’s aesthetic calls to mind a raging storm, Keyser’s brave paintings suggest frozen moments of collision. Any given work might include many materials: rope, tarp, cork, fur, sand, twisted metal, gobs of sawdust, paint applied like handfuls of cement, and, of course, canvas on a wooden stretcher. As the gallery explains, all 13 paintings are born from the hell bitch Keyser keeps in her studio, a “living palate” that the artist uses to test out different ideas.
One may surmise that three basic formats are derived from this unseen matriarch. The first, and most exciting, are those in which the canvas is utterly torn and shredded, appearing to hang onto the stretcher bars like half-flayed skin. In a second range of works the canvas is less distressed, though Keyser’s boisterous brushwork gives the impression of a vehement visual outcry. The third format is a smart juxtaposition: angled metal welded into rectilinear designs and powder-coated in muted monotones. These pieces provide moments of comparative rest. They look like the framework for something, but what that might be is ungraspable. Stitched and stuffed plastic tarp bags dangle from these metal works and lend their otherwise machined aesthetic an organic quality.
Music for a Drowned World (2015) displays the finest qualities of the first format, which include an incredibly savvy manner of blending materials to transform a single gesture. From the upper right corner, out of a busy nest of black paint, a dark line jettisons. It starts out as paint and becomes a bar of bent and painted aluminum. The materials merge at a distance and one only sees the composition, which suggests a spider-webbed windshield.
The way these paintings change given one’s physical proximity is remarkable. Distance flattens depth, but up close is like having your head neck deep in a dangerous tangle. This is less true with the two metal pieces, Between the Hips and Between the Knees (both 2015), though a relation to one’s physical body remains. Somehow these works seem rigorously formal and yet surprisingly sexual. There is dualism between the right angles of the cleanly cut metal and the dangling roundness of loose sacks filled with sand and seed hulls.
Bird of Paradise (2015) is a good example of the third format Keyser is working with. Here the canvas is left almost entirely intact, punctured only by a plate-sized cork. Blue and black paint ferociously mix and smear from top to bottom, as if clawed by an agitated animal. Bird of Paradise might just as easily be a reproduction of one square inch of a de Kooning woman, scaled up. However one interprets it, there is no denying its raw, primal quality.
Now here’s the question: are these feminist paintings? I wouldn’t have thought to wonder were it not for a panel hosted at Maccarone on the topic of Feminism and Painting with Brown and Keyser sitting alongside Joan Semmel and the distinguished curator Alison Gingeras. The house was packed, suggesting the question might be more urgent than I realized. And the conclusion was more curious than I expected. Neither Brown nor Keyser claimed to make conscious artistic decisions based on their gender or politics; a simpler adherence to aesthetics drives their decisions. It slowly emerged that what the women of Semmel’s generation fought so hard for was being taken for granted by a younger generation, who were privileged enough to have been taught as children that women could do and be anything. I don’t think of these paintings as feminist, but I do think these are two tremendous painters who could one day be great artists.