Cecily Brown: A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! at Paul Cooper Gallery
October 22 to December 2, 2017
534 West 21st Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, paulacoopergallery.com
Instagram must, in part, be credited with the popularity craze for Yayoi Kusama in New York right now. In her whimsical multi-venue exhibition, “Festival of Light” the Japanese artist has cultivated the quintessential environment for the age of the selfie. Beyond the perfect selfie backdrop, these rooms foment a phenomenological encounter between participant and environment. The primary physical encounter with Kusama’s spaces induce mental stimulation, be it destabilization, escapism, or even simple enjoyment. And while there continue to be numerous painting shows this season, with the preponderance of Kusama-like immersive environments, contemporary painters are steeped in an art world that anticipates a certain kind of spectator immersion.
Perhaps this is why Cecily Brown’s new paintings, presented at Paula Cooper in her first solo show with the gallery, is such a revelation. Brown produces an absorptive mental and physical experience that rivals interactive art. Owing to the dictates of her elaborative painterly process, works in this exhibition ensnare the viewer in a state of sustained looking. This activity is not unidirectional as Brown’s undulating canvases simultaneously reveal and withhold visual data.
The centerpiece of the sold-out show is also its title piece: “A Day! Help! Help! Another Day!” (2016), a triptych, is the largest work to date in Brown’s oeuvre. While critics have pointed to the art historical references at play in this canvas, including a stated homage to the shipwreck scenes of Géricault and Delacroix, the philosophic underpinnings of Brown’s process are what unlock potential for sustained looking.
An heir of Francis Bacon, Brown is, as it were, an intellectual relation to Bacon’s great interpreter, Gilles Deleuze: her work echoes the French philosopher in the translation of sensation onto canvas. Brown’s most recent works seem especially in dialogue with Deleuze’s conception of the fold—an unrelenting maneuvering of existing material, inter alia the folding and refolding—which allows preexisting matter to transform into a form of expression. Brown’s processional practice, in which she continually remediates her strokes, covers her previous marks, and often returns to her works after months-long hiatuses, is an artistic translation of this philosophical concept. The artist’s additive process is an accumulation of luscious gestures and abrupt strokes, ultimately rendering an assemblage of fractured forms that produce a rhythmically pulsating whole.
Sifting through the canonical imagery of Géricault’s’ The Raft of the Medusa, Brown’s immersive method allows her to splice her art historical allusion with swaths of paint and encoded gesture which complicate the discrete categorization of her work as figurative or abstract. Relishing in the instability of her own mark-making, her phantom-like forms emerge from the depths of the painting, only to recede into the cyclonic mass of abstract forms. As the viewer walks from edge to edge of her painting (which is the only way to fully absorb the behemoth masterpiece) both body and eye activate as the ambulatory motion reveals recognizable traces of flesh, wreckage, and the elements. The single reading of the painting proves insufficient. Iterative looking is continuously rewarded in Brown’s canvases: each additional viewing unearths new discoveries and destabilizes old observations. Mirroring the artist’s own additive painterly method, the absorbed viewer returns to the same zones of the canvas only to see it anew. Whereas Brown is most frequently understood to be in dialogue with Willem de Kooning, another New York School name comes to mind at Paula Cooper: Barnett Newman, who avowed that the most salient aspect of his paintings was not their monumental measure but their relationship to human scale. These works were successful if they produced reverberations of the human figure and prompted an introspective consideration of one’s own bodily presence. Rendered to human scale, Brown’s A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! (2016), brings the physical body of the spectator into the mass of forms and flesh, implicating the viewer in the chaos of the shipwreck.
Beyond the physical absorption of the viewer, Brown’s content subsumes the visual field. In much the way that Newman’s iconic “zips” serve to orient the viewer at the center of the visual field, so too does Brown’s most clearly rendered human form near the center of her composition. Acting as an anchor, the figure both centers and envelops the viewer in the visual content. The distinction between painted figure and viewer is collapsed, a sensation heightened evermore by the orientation of the figure with back turned to the audience. Indeed, Brown’s most prominent figure seems to survey the damage of the shipwreck with the gallery-goer. This back-turned figure repeats in another painting in the exhibition, the equally enigmatic Madrepora (Shipwreck), (2016).
While Brown deals in plastic media, her mesmerizing canvases elicit the immersive environments and absorptive states which characterize the most successful installation art around today. Even more than these Instagram-friendly environments, Brown asks the viewer to slow down and participate in the unfolding of her canvases. A true interlocutor with artists and philosophers past, Brown’s subject matter nevertheless expresses an engagement with the demands of contemporary art. Where Kusama gives you infinity in a room, Brown paints you into her shipwreck: You are a material form in the process of becoming, alongside the flesh, wreckage, and masterfully applied brushstrokes.