Welcome to the world of painting.com. In today’s accelerating art market, maybe any neighborhood, medium, or activity could be dotcommed: Chelsea.com, installation.com, video.com, or critics.com. I should register them, though they’re probably already taken.
But painting.com is most on the money. It applies to a number of young painters—some good, some not so good—who may be to art what tech stocks are to the market. They’re hot, hyped, and esteemed as much for what might be there in the future as for what’s there now.
Articles with the same faces appear like clockwork, and red-hot start-ups are touted as personalities regardless of their work. Good art is getting made, and there’s nothing wrong with publicity, but something creepy is going on. In nearly every case, it seems that these faces must be young, white, heterosexual, and pretty to count as one of the “hot new artists.” For example, Ingrid Sischy’s puff piece in February’s Vanity Fair—”Gotta Paint!”—had nary a dark complexion or bit of cellulite. But the machine needs product, venture capital must venture, old sharks will circle, and skepticism is dismissed as backlash.
As with the tautology of tech stocks, the more people think there might be something there, the more others rush in thinking there must be something there. Before you know it, you end up on the big board, which (if you consider Gagosian the big board) is where Cecily Brown—and her too much, too soon exhibition—has landed.
Over the past two years we’ve seen this 30-year-old featured in publications like Vanity Fair, Vogue, New York, and The New York Times Magazine and television shows like Charlie Rose. She comes off as a smart, self-assured maverick. In a way, Brown is a weird manifestation of the Young British Artist phenomenon, a decade after its first impact, played out on our shores. Born and raised in England, she went to London’s Slade School of Art, where she witnessed the beginning of the Brit boom. She claims, “I’m not a YBA,” but brings to her art much of the British flair for playing the pop-star artist in public.
Male artists have used the media to shape their images for years, and Brown does this with aplomb, but it’s hard to know if she’s playing the media or if the media’s playing her. In spite of all our superficiality and mania for exhibitionism, spectacle goes down differently here than it does in London—especially around painting. I’m not saying we don’t love fun, surface, or shallowness—we do—but Americans are always looking for meaning, or an inside, even if there is no inside. It’s probably a Puritan thing.
Brown paints in a manner best described as latter-day, second-generation abstract expressionist by way of Georg Baselitz and Susan Rothenberg. Without reserve, and because she wants so much to make heroic painting live again, Brown—like a Method actor—pours herself into a mold another generation filled beautifully. Why people want this kind of painting at this moment may be explained by the way we love stars’ children. We reexperience a bit of Kirk Douglas, say, while watching Michael. It’s a way of getting close to the real thing without being challenged by it. In the case of Brown’s paintings, she keeps the form and sexes up the content.
Which brings us back to tech stocks. As everyone knows, the dirty secret of the Internet is that the majority of customers are using it for sex. Hidden, or not so hidden among her noodly, kaleidoscopic brush strokes, are innuendos of penetration and naughtiness. Nothing especially lurid, mind you—an insertion here, an erection there, all obscured in a bustle of color. Sue Williams also embedded racy detail in lyrical paint strokes, while Jeff Koons set the gold standard for what’s possible with sex and painting with his porno pictures, which were so out-there they almost got him kicked out of the art world. For the funny-money side of all this, see the current benumbed and academic exhibition of painting.commando Damien Loeb.
On the plus side, Brown’s paintings have the flamboyant look of centerfolds all swooshed up and run through a wood chipper, or as the artist Cheryl Donegan put it, “They look as if a hand grenade had been thrown into a Versace show.” The paint is juicy. The color is glitzy. The ambition is big. But, swashbuckling aside, the surfaces are bland. Six of the eight paintings are signed simply “Cecily”—like Cher—as if she knew how comical all this was.
The problem isn’t that Brown’s paintings feel old; it’s that they aren’t old in interesting ways (as are John Currin’s, Lisa Yuskavage’s, or Elizabeth Peyton’s). Bringing together abstraction and figuration and adding sex is merely oil painting as usual.
In 1995, Brown made a work that embodies her spirit: a raucous, hand-drawn animated porno film titled Four Letter Heaven. Things could get really interesting, even scary, if Brown were to put more of the spirit of that film, or her rebellious public persona, into her painting. Because, for all their ostensible explicitness or openness, these paintings have a remarkably low quotient of self-exposure. They’re impersonal, almost anonymous. They reflect an artist who clearly wants to make great paintings but is settling for far too little.