Powerful and erotic imagery is embedded within the painted skins of Cecily Brown’s work. The exhibition ‘Madrepora’ is Brown’s first at Thomas Dane’s St. James’ gallery and there is something about seeing her gestural work amongst the remnants of London’s traditional playgrounds for high society and the idle rich that brings out the ‘Fanny Hill’ in the paintings. The age of John Cleland and William Hogarth is evoked explicitly in the gouache ‘Untitled (Groping Triptych)’ (1999-2002) where a mirrored sequence of a seduction or a scene from a brothel is played out multiple times.
Repetition is a feature of the exhibition both as an expression of the artist at work, going over the surface of the painting again and again, and as an obsessive return to the same set of imagery. As the exhibition is split between the shop front gallery of 3 Duke Street and an upper floor space some extra effort is required to compare similar works. Another boudoir scene gouache ‘Untitled (Vanity)’ (2007) has the mirrored image of a woman in period costume looking at her own reflection while the composition is deformed by Brown to create the skull of a vanitas picture. Then same subject, enlarged and worked more expressively in oils, appears in the large ‘Untitled’ (2005) and similar variations on themes occur between several works.
‘Lady Grinning Soul’ (2015) suggests another pair of women’s faces with floating eyes peering out of a mass of brush strokes. A triangle of fleshy paint suggests a dress flipped up by a pair of heeled shoes or maybe another tangle of limbs like those between the girls and their patrons in ‘Groping Triptych’. In Brown’s show the illicit thrill and disturbance of being ‘caught in the act’ – the distilled voyeurism of Cleland’s ‘Fanny Hill’ – knits together with an aesthetic charge. The artist’s private work in the studio is made public by exhibition. In ‘One Life to Live’ (2015), the largest painting in the show, a crowd of figures press in to view another spectacle of heaving flesh. One of the spectators appears to look on, propping their head on hand. As in her return to vanitas pictures, Brown is also programmatically working through the canon of European painting. ‘One Life to Live’ could be her take on Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’ or a Rubens’ ‘Susannah and the Elders’ or a fusion of the two.
This exhibition follows on from Brown’s residency at the National Gallery. ‘The Baptism’ (2015) with its central figure standing in a pool surrounded by a crowd may be taken from their Piero della Francesca. The spread legs, however, recall Gustave Courbet’s ‘Origin of the World’ (1866) or more directly some of Egon Schiele’s ‘crotch shots’. Throughout the show, Brown weaves a tension. She seems undecided if all these art historical references are high minded and moralistic or simply an excuse for pleasure through paint.