June 10, 2015

Cecily Brown: Painterly Thickets

Cecily Brown's beautiful show, "The English Garden", currently at Maccarone gallery at 98 Morton Street, was a lesson to me in slowing down, looking carefully, and being open to new work. I had just seen the Alex Katz show around the corner, which I loved, and will write about; my familiarity with his pared down landscapes made me resistant at first to the painterly complexity of Brown's small paintings.

Rainy Day Women, 2007; oil on linen, 12.5 x 17 in.

As I looked, I became entranced by the welter of brushstrokes; their layering is full of life and delicate energy. Each painting contains a particular quality of light and air, and most refer to a landscape space, one that asks us to make our way through dense paint to the spaces behind.

Rainy Day Women detail

There's a sense of working and reworking, of time changing what is seen. There is an abundance of mark making, always sensitively sought, and tremendously varied. The grays of the rainy day....

Red me no green, 2008; oil on linen, 12.5 x 17 in.

....give way to lush colors in profusion. 

Red me no green detail

The brushstrokes are juicy, in character with the color. Looking at these paintings, artists who have worked abstractly with the landscape come to mind, such as Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell.

All Souls' Eve, 2014; oil on linen, 12.5 x 17 in.

A dark turbulence is like a storm at the seacoast. I so admire Brown's ability to call up different landscapes in different weather.

Untitled, 2015; oil on linen, 17 x 12.5 in.

Most of the paintings in the show are the same 12.5 x 17 inch dimension, either horizontal or vertical. The vertical orientation squeezes space in a different way from a horizontal expanse; we climb the painting, going upwards as we go deep. The larger marks and more intense color at the bottom of the canvas emphasize the spacial effect.

Untitled, 2006; oil on linen, 17 x 12.5 in.

I love this painting and its transparent use of paint. It is light-filled, and like a bright spring day.

Untitled, 2006 detail

The mark-making and the color seem intuitive, yet informed by an intense working understanding of constructing a painting. This approach––with such a wide range of brushstrokes and multitude of color––could end up with a mess, but Brown is in total control of her material.

Untitled, 2007; oil on linen, 17 x 12.5 in.

Again, different kinds of marks allude to a different imagery. Here I feel that I am looking closely at things in the winter woods, the grays broken by bits of color. Brown is mainly known for her large figure paintings, which I've never seen so I'm unable to say anything about the relationship of the two bodies of work, large paintings and small. This show emphasizes that small can be complex and ambitious.

Untitled, 2010; oil on board, 8 x 6 in.

Finally, a very small work, painted very sparely and fluidly. It brings de Kooning's late paintings to mind. The painting holds the wall with simple strength, and adds another way of seeing to this rich body of work.


  1. This looks like a wonderful show of very fertile works - and you write beautifully about what you saw there. Thank you for this post. I would never have expected this, having seen her large figurative paintings in the past!

    1. I'm glad you liked this post, Ravenna. I wonder if my response to the work would have been different if I'd known her large figurative work.