Magazine article The Spectator

Great Expectations

Magazine article The Spectator

Great Expectations

Article excerpt

Cecily Brown: Paintings Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford, until 28 August

There has been a great deal of media coverage of this exhibition of new paintings by Cecily Brown (born 1969) at the curiously named Modern Art Oxford. (It's actually an Arts Council-funded public gallery. ) Brown, though a Londoner, has lived in New York since 1994 and has made a substantial name for herself there and in Europe, showing recently at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, and at Museo d'Arte Contemporanea, Rome, in 2003. This is her first major solo exhibition in Britain.

Its reception has been mixed. Magazine profiles tend to stress her impeccable pedigree (her father is the late David Sylvester, her mother the distinguished novelist Shena Mackay), and dilate upon the primary subject matter of her painting -- sex.

British critics, a notoriously curmudgeonly lot, like to show that they aren't easily impressed, even by bravura paintwork and international sales. Consequently, a couple of the broadsheets consider she has been over-hyped, though Richard Dorment in the Telegraph calls her work 'dazzling' and Jackie Wullschlager in the FT thinks that 'for sheer painterly verve' this is 'the most interesting show by a living artist in England this year'. A great deal has been made of Brown's use of paint, and it is this which has to be the focus of any serious discussion of her achievement to date.

I have been following her work with great interest since 1988, though because of her departure for the States I haven't seen a great deal of it since her debut show here in 1999. That exhibition of just four large oil paintings was at Victoria Miro's Cork Street space, and was a considerable success, with the Tate buying a picture. Let me quote briefly from my review:

Her work is intelligent and generous . . . at once notational and baroque. There's a great depth of figurative reference here, but it doesn't decode easily. . . . The paint is beautifully handled: slathers and brush-falls, gloriously liquid and present . . . Cecily Brown is a young painter to watch, for she could take off brilliantly in any direction.

You may say I was impressed.

The Oxford exhibition consists of 16 oil paintings, a lithograph and an animated film from 1995. (There's also a limited edition aquatint for sale to mark the occasion of the show. ) The film stands up well: it's brash, funny, sexy and inventive. The paintings have all been done in the past six years, and the most obviously sexual is the earliest, 'Performance' (1999-2000).

Dominating the second of the upstairs galleries, this monstrous slicked-up turquoise canvas freezes the blood. Although the painting depicts the intimacy of coitus, the subaqueous froideur of its palette and the mechanistic limbs destroy any sense of tenderness or sexiness. Looking round this spacious top-lit gallery, the immediate impression is of painterly clutter, of frenetic activity trying to distract the visitor from what becomes apparent with continued looking: a distressing absence of feeling, perhaps of meaning.

Is this a problem of subject? Brown seems to be moving away from the direct sexual confrontation, but has not yet replaced it with anything quite so compelling. (Yet if her reputation is based on painting the act of sex, would she ever want to abandon it? …

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