Cecily Brown is a British-born oil painter who lives and works in New York. Her erotically charged, large-scale paintings are layered figurative or semi-figurative abstractions with lascivious rich colors and strong, energetic brushwork, whose themes are sexuality and attraction. “My paintings have always dealt with turbulence and conflict,” says Brown. She is credited as a central figure in the 21st century resurgence of painters and is ranked as one of the most influential artists of her generation.
Brown is the daughter of British writer Shena Mackay. An important figure in Brown’s childhood was the influential art critic and curator David Sylvester, who mentored and showed interest in her artistic talent. After graduating with a B.A. from the Slade School of Art in 1993, she found out that Sylvester was actually her father. In 1994, distancing herself from his prestigious reputation and from London’s “Young British Artist” scene, Brown moved to New York. There she gained attention with a photo spread in “The New Yorker” magazine.
Brown uses historical references in her works as she appropriates images from past artists such as Goya and Degas and recent painters such as Francis Bacon, Arshile Gorky, and Philip Guston. Her sketches show how she makes these forms her own through the technique of repetition. The fluidity in her drawings and her facility with line come from her putting marks down quickly and confidently. “Learning to draw is teaching yourself how to see, or making something you want to see.” Her drawings open onto a formal dreamland, through repetition.
In Brown’s 1999 painting “Tender is the Night,” the figure of the woman is not immediately seen, but mixed into the tangles of yellow and flesh-toned paint one can see a female form on all fours. The work suggests a state of ecstasy as the figure’s immersion into her surroundings points to a moment of pure instinct.
Her “Sirens and Shipwrecks and Bathers and the Band” 2006 is a huge 33-foot triptych of swirling gestures. The shipwrecked boat is surrounded by a hint of several burkini-clad women, a reference to an incident in Nice, France when armed police forced a Muslim woman to remove the covered-up garment she was wearing on the beach.
In Brown’s 2011 painting “You Can’t Make This Up,” her abstract realism makes it difficult to pinpoint individual figures. Objects and body shapes emerge from the layers of abstract marks and swirls. Here her overall color scheme is darker and more sinister. Ambiguity here is intentional as she states, “My ideal is to have the tension and intensity of an aggressively sexual image without actually having to describe that.”
Her 2013 painting “Where They Are Now” derives from he cover art for Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 album “Electric Ladyland” where nineteen nude women pose as if in an Ingres’ painting. These “Ladyland” women appear in other works of hers, at times barely recognizable, but always uncharacteristically still, without motion or gestures.
Brown recently had her first solo museum show in New York at the Drawing Center, which featured seventy-eight works on paper from 1997 to 2016. Although her drawings sometimes approached the large scale of her canvases, they were not preparatory studies but complete works of art. The drawings were grouped in sets according to their shared source imagery.
Her art has appeared in more than a dozen solo exhibitions, numerous group shows, and art fairs throughout the world, with her most recent being the 2017 Armory Show and FOG Design+Art. She completed a major installation at the Metropolitan Opera House. Her paintings are in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, Hirshhorn Museum, Tate Gallery London, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and others.