The Debaser – New Work by painter Glenn Brown
Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street Oct 15 – Nov 27 2009
The new collection of paintings and occasional sculpture in Glenn Brown’s show are peopled by bookmarks of art history. Stand-ins twice removed from where real people once where. The women and children are replicates of the pillowy marshmallow people that inhabit the world of c18th French painting. They are rather hysterical, between ghosts and flesh and unravelling balls of polychrome wool. The tension in the paintings comes from a feeling of arrest in our perception of a mind at work; identifying the sources that have been ground down to create an illusion of new-ness.
The painting used to advertise the show, ‘War in Peace’ (2009), is of a large, blue decaying foot depicted as if the viewer were the owner of that foot. It takes a never-ending, paddling step into the big ‘out there’ of deep space and time.
Depth and trickery. The painting mimics the glossiness of a magazine page but yet from the mad, thick strands of paint you would have to come up close to guess their flatness.
It’s a shame that in this show there are none of his huge, sweeping, science fiction paintings which are very close copies of paintings by genre artists (such as the ‘The Loves of Shepherds’, infamous during Brown’s nomination for the 2000 Turner Prize for being a direct lift from the painting ‘Doublestar’ by Tony Roberts). For they seem to exemplify best the questions Brown poses about constructed worlds and about our beliefs in how much they contain. Spatially, the science fiction paintings show a love and a care bestowed on realising an unreal world. His historical figures, by contrast, often hover in blank voids unbroken only by a few streaks of awkwardly unblended paint.
There are a few mishapen canvases in this show which are figures cut loose and mounted almost as three-dimensional pieces. One is a figure in a billowing green smock falling headlong into the white of the gallery walls, his or her skirts playing host to a mischevious and grinning gappy-toothed skull.
Glenn Brown calls himself a painter and does not regard himself as an artist. By alligning himself with this strand of theoretical opinion, he has neatly (and honorably) eliminated himself from the criticism of people who don’t like painting and frees himself to indulge in the fruitful variations of image-making in oils. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. If he were working in any other medium he would not be especially interesting.
I am absolutely bursting to say; if it wasn’t for the fullness and the obsession with visual information with which his paintings are loaded their themes would be almost curmudgeonly. Luckily he’s a brilliant painter. An analogy from a related discipline: I recently came across a New York Times article on the upspring of the modern creative writing programme and the style taught on writing courses. Somebody (whom I will paraphrase) described the minimalist style as a ‘fear of being caught out’. Hiding behind what hasn’t been said.
No doubt people will remember the information era, the welcomed tail-end of the postmodern – and celebrate it – as a high point of pastiche. It isn’t news to anybody that we’ve never been in a place with so much available material of every kind. Optical, intellectual, and though it is very likely you may end up limiting yourself; gateways to actual experience too.
What he does with the visual information of a woman’s torso and hips is one of the most striking images in the show. The fleshy upper area of the thigh and arse are flung outwards towards the observer. Using a constant of traditional art (the female body) and all its political variables he makes a painting that subtly alerts us to the things that we expect from it. It is almost like a cropped Lucian Freud, that most beloved of popular British figurative painters. He mixes together the tight crop of the photograph and the fetishistic ‘there-ness’ of the figure in traditional figurative painting.
Each painting is a mass of temperatures. If Brown has a real area of genius it is with colour and control. This is seen particularly in the piece ‘Debaser’ (2009).
Figurative painting post-millennium seems to have the most bizarre and exploded colour palette. Brown’s contemporaries in years, Jonas Burgert (who had a recent show at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London) and Neo Rauch also paint wild, polychromal figurative pieces, both of whom, to varying degrees, work with unfashionable things like assertive narratives. There is a key difference between them: Rauch can be self-reflexive in a way that places him adjacent to Brown; Burgert isn’t. His worlds are like creaky toy boxes coincidentally opened up to the looker. Rauch, like Brown, shows picture-making caught in the act.
And now to the sculptures. Which are 3D paintings, in effect. His piece ‘Monument to International Socialism’ mixes found and wrought together in a funny and alluring way. The thick paint-slugs of eggplant, jade, buttery yellow and navy hide what seem to be a bronze horse or cow or sheep, suckling a miniature version of itself. A citizen calf who is suckling at the state? The titles mean nothing in the most case. Jokes and misnomers, sometimes undercutting the seriousness of an image or sometimes tacking some seriousness on with post-it note casualness.
I noticed a tendency within myself to look at the titles last. The paintings promised so much information: the figures so familiar, the theme of warring gorgeousness and sickliness. Perhaps the titles are the last thing; the last point from which we bounce back.