We are not in a golden age of art. Galleries have gone corporate and art schools have become institutional machines. “It is definitely an age of gold,” said art dealer Josh Baer at a Christie’s panel in February. “I’m not saying there’s not great art,” continues Baer, “it’s about this collective spirit that’s beyond any individual” —a spirit that isn’t there right now. Today’s contemporary art is more absurd and cheaply clever than beautiful and meaningful, inundated by derivative works or abstract-to-the-point-of-abstraction crap that doesn’t feel worthy. Maurizio Cattelan (banana duct-taped to wall) and Terence Koh (literally golden crap)—garish, facile, and unsubtle—hardly seem like the unappreciated Van Goghs and Monets of our era.
Enter Cecily Brown. She’s been working since 1994, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art currently showcases her work in the show “Death and the Maid,” the biggest of her career so far. While a longtime presence in the art world, she now reaches a larger mainstream public with this show. That’s where I first saw her, just a couple months ago, and since then, I’ve been telling everyone that “she’s my favorite artist right now,” because she is.
Enter the gallery: her pieces look largely like generic abstracts of the modern era: Pollocks with more pink. However, they keep your gaze, hold it still. Take Maid in a Landscape (2021), which is the partial namesake for the exhibit. You don’t see anything at first: just some greens, browns, yellows, light gray streaks strewn at random. But keep looking. On the right, you make out a ghastly face, a woman with her hair blowing in an invisible wind, as if melting away. Maybe then you see the figure underneath her, a dark, lugubrious lady with a garland—is it a garland?—on her head, and a blouse stained coffee-brown. Is she looking down mournfully? Inevitably, you dare to assess the two central figures that caught your attention from the very beginning: an inflamed woman gasping (or speaking?), wearing what looks like a bridal gown, draping her slender skeleton, holding the other figure, cold, blue, looking away from us and at her.
Maybe you see what I just laid out. Maybe you don’t see the woman at the center. Maybe you see more figures, or nobody at all. Maybe you disagree with every piece of my description, and that could very well be valid. Most of Brown’s works obfuscate their subjects like this. Given the title of the piece, you assume there is a maiden and a landscape, but Brown doesn’t give those to you right away. You pick up on other elements—a phallic tree trunk, a stray woman—that complicate the image. Brown amalgamates them all together. “One of the things I love about painting,” said Brown in an interview with the MET, “is its ability to embody more than one thing at once.”
Critics have complained about this style, with Jackson Arn of The New Yorker terming it a “meat grinder,” noting the chaotic and amalgamated style. He notes “how hard it is to remember what a Brown painting looks like” and asserts “the more restrained art…is the most riveting.” Certainly, there are merits in her more definite works like Aujourd’hui Rose (2005), a clever double-image of two women handling some grim, black mass, composing the greater image of a skull, and Untitled (Vanity) (2005), a pale portrait of a woman, hair tied up and in diaphanous, fragile ballroom attire, staring right at her grisly mouth in a skull-shaped baroque vanity. However, even these have their obscurities: blurry lines, double-images, diffuse and overlapping colors, impossibly vague figments of the works’ core elements.
A Brownian work is defined enough to capture the viewer, yet abstract enough to keep them constantly interpreting. The glory of Brown’s work is its shedding of pure, static meaning, in favor of a more dynamic, nuanced one that the viewer has the pleasure of unearthing themself. Look at Lobsters, Oysters, Cherries and Pearls (2020). Bloody reds haunt the entire scene, laid under brushes of creamy, decadent whites, and, in the top-left corner, there’s a splotch of lively greenery, though slowly infected by the red. You can make out a cocktail glass that contains either dark pomegranate seeds or gore-soup, a flaccid, graying fish, and a pair of foreboding eyes underneath the table: a cat maybe, or death summoned by the indulgence. I have no idea what Brown is trying to do here: I come up with ideas, and then change them upon seeing the next brush-stroke.
For a review like this, it would be tempting to spoil Brown’s work with greater context. I could go into Egon Schiele’s Death and the Maiden (1915) painting, which clearly inspired Maid in a Landscape, or into the 17th Century Flemish vanitas motifs—symbols of abundance such as game, fruits, and flowers, signaling of the ephemerality of life and the imminence of death—that inspired a work like Lobsters, or into her fleshy, corporeal representations of figures, in works like Untitled (Vanity) or 1000 Thread Count (2004), taken from abstract expressionists like Willem DeKooning and Francis Bacon. While these influences are important to her work—and Brown readily admits them—they might mislead some into viewing her work as primarily historical reactions, not original, generative pieces, as they deserve to be viewed.
Brown is an artist of our era. Her abstract style, a representation of the physical fabric of life spaghettifying apart, limns the unbearable fragility of being. She elicits the languid decadence of our age and death looming over us. She expounds sex and slaughter, which are now more abundant than ever, yet feel fraught, unreal, ephemeral. The bananas duct-taped to walls of contemporary art have one generic message: this is art, and art is absurd. Brown rejects this banal, one-dimensional understanding of life and instead attempts to explain the messy and highly emotional states of our reality through nuanced and unsettled abstraction. Is she representative of an oncoming golden age? Who knows, but she’s certainly a piece of bona fide gold amid gilded pieces of poop. She’s a restorer of faith: that art isn’t only overly-self-referential gimmicks, but can, today, speak to our deepest impulses and meditate on the primal reasons for existence.
But don’t get away from her art. My favorite piece of hers is The Girl Who Had Everything (1998). You make out these chaotic strands among larger curvy masses and lines. It’s fleshy and bloody and bony. Can you see the girl? I think I can, at least parts of her: her arm, her butt, maybe her eyes. Can you see everything she had? Perhaps it’s every fluid tissue and shred around her. Or maybe it’s gone, and this is what’s left. But, you can see the loss. Definitely. She’s everywhere, torn apart and scattered.