The human figure, sex and the voyeuristic gaze are the subjects of Cecily Brown's large-scale canvases displayed at her first major retrospective. The detailed images are too broken down to be pornographic and are inspired as much by comic books as they are from masters such as Bacon and Hogarth. This is apparent in the haunting 'Black Painting 4' where winged phalluses fly over reclining figures, reminiscent of the etchings of Goya. Brown views her art form as being inseparable from its history and this is shown in the strong brush strokes from left to right of 'Red Painting' that evoke the battle scenes of renaissance paintings.
Brown paints directly onto the canvas without the use of preparatory drawings, giving a sensual texture to her work. Swirling brush strokes in 'Overbite' show both figurative and abstract rabbits caught in a bacchanalian landscape. The overlay of paint on paint gives a feeling that the composition is developing. This makes the surface of the canvas fragile so the gallery actively encourages you to leave your baggage (in lockers) at the door. This is a great metaphor as psychologically you can leave your preconceived ideas about sex outside the exhibition, be open to Brown's depiction and go where that takes you.
The bold, dynamic colours used to paint the human figures make the paintings grab your attention whether you want them to or not. The earliest piece in the exhibition, 'Performance' (1995), portrays the sexual act stripped bare in delicious turquoise, cream and mint green set against a black background. The intense impact of 'Performance' is hypnotic and may require a return visit. Alongside paintings that are both abstract and figurative in nature, Brown's graphic work is also displayed in a short watercolour animation of the sexual act entitled 'Four Letter Heaven'. This short adult film (2 minutes 50 seconds) is accompanied by funky Latin music by Perez Prado.
To give her career as a painter the best possible chance of success Brown left England for New York, as the 'Young British Artists' were taking off, wondering if her style would take off also. Brown's work is now eminently collectable (each painting selling for £70,000) and is represented in Tate Modern and the Guggenheim.
Modern Art Oxford is presenting the work of this provocative artist until 28th August and admission is free. The natural style in which Brown paints leaves the paint on the canvas looking like layers of skin and as I pick up my baggage at the exit, I feel much more comfortable in my own.
Lita Doolan 30/06/05
Saatchi Gallery Information on Cecily Brown and images of her work