Visions of Violence and Pleasure: Cecily Brown And Linda Nochlin At The Des Moines Art Center by Matthew Ballou
When Norbert asked me to present some writing on Neoteric, I wanted to make an attempt at something a little different. I feel like blogs – and really all media – are so tuned to an at-the-moment kind of content that, perhaps, seasoned contemplation of past events is less valued. But as an instructor I find that one of my best tools is the evocative retelling of previous art world experiences: what it was like to see a da Vinci Annunciation at the Uffizi, to stand next to Antonio Lopez Garcia in Boston, or to wander through the Philadelphia Museum of Art to find Lord Leighton’s La Nanna. So here is the first in a series of contemplations on some shows (or generally art-type events) from the last few years.
The piece below was not meant for publication. It was just a reflection on the show that I sent out to colleagues, friends, and former professors – now you’re in on it, dear Neoteric readers. I’ve decided not to spruce it up; I hope you’ll enjoy it warts and all.
Visions of Violence and Pleasure: Cecily Brown And Linda Nochlin At The Des Moines Art Center
I attended an open conversation between Linda Nochlin and Cecily Brown at the Des Moines Art Center on September 14, 2006. Roughly 250 students, teachers, and others came to hear the discussion and take in Brown’s show before it makes its way on to the east coast (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 18, 2006 to January 15, 2007). It was an eye-opening event in several ways.
First, getting to see Brown’s work without the proxy of the flat, glossy, printed page was very helpful in actually understanding what she’s trying to do. Obviously, this is always the case, but I was surprised by how much my assumptions changed while in front of the works. There is an immediacy in how these paintings can be read, first in terms of the speed with which the eye may travel about them, but also in terms of what resolves from concentrated viewing of the works. This resolution arises almost instantaneously as a sort of flipping of the viewer’s apprehension of the images, similar to how one may see an optical illusion.
Secondly, this discussion – particularly on the part of Linda Nochlin – was in part an inversion of certain aspects of feminist theory, at least to my mind. This inversion is connected to a natural shift between the values and stances of older feminists and those of younger women who have grown up with some notion of advocacy present in the culture. As Nochlin observed, commenting on conceptions of fashion and beauty that distinguish younger women artists from older ones: “I can wear lipstick and I can also still be a great artist today.” Furthermore, the pair’s exclamations regarding Poussin’s “Rape of the Sabine Women” made for an interesting moment. Both proclaimed the work as an “ideal painting.” This estimation was based both on the overall form and internal syncopation of the work, as well as on (but not necessitated by) the function of the painting as a totemic reflection of the European mind at the time. This, joined with a jocular discussion of the main subject matter of the painting, seemed to stake a claim that a good work is a good work, regardless of its social milieu, its creator’s beliefs, or it’s subject matter. This pro-painting, almost anti-theory reading of the work was very refreshing. And really, it wasn’t at the expense of a real desire for female representation, equality, and dispensation in art. It was rather a resetting of the issues that these two prominent women feel are necessary to approach art and art making. It was very, very intriguing.
Thirdly, I found the tone of the discussion invigorating in spite of its weaker moments. Brown talked about painting as painting. You can tell she’s passionate about making the work, about exploring it, and about finding strategies to get the images in her head out. It’s that fundamental relationship between the artist and her material that seems to come out again and again in her statements. She’s not concerned with justifying or defending painting, and she (as well as Nochlin) openly chided the constant questioning of painting. They both agreed that the historical position of painting as a form, with its established arenas and legacies where any new work is instantly connected with what has been and what presently is happening within the discipline, lends it to be the easiest target for iconoclasts.
Their lucid, easy dialogue was illuminating without being pretentious. Nochlin’s reputation is secure, and you get the feeling that she knows she doesn’t have to ramrod arguments – she can make a statement and let it settle. Her humor was a high point of the night. Brown is tremendously engaging and, like many artists, she loves talking about the work, delving into it readily and informally, and letting a few discursive sentences elucidate things rather than spouting pat answers. I found this unassuming manner continued when I chatted with her for a few minutes at the end of the evening. Both Brown and Nochlin, perhaps sensing the many undergraduates in the crowd, made their discussion more fundamental than theoretical. This made for an accessible, clear presentation.
But was I convinced that Brown is really onto something with her work? That she’s pushing some boundaries in the discipline of painting and making a real contribution? The answer is both yes and no.
I took down notes as I spent a couple hours in the exhibition of her work prior to going into the conversation. A number of major things leapt to me within a couple minutes of being with the work, but perhaps the first thing I became aware of is the way she’s putting down the paint. It’s a facture that is almost annoyingly spare in one moment, and dramatically dense and active in another. Certain areas are open, knifed, left with very little or no paint, while other areas are a cacophony of flicked, tufted, and rendered paint. The give and take that happens on the surface of the works is exciting to look at – those small, tentative, descriptive, delicate flourishes versus the long, overarching, compositional marks – some of which travel 6 or more feet.
The nature of the mark making shifts often, usually riding some line between drawing with paint and painting with paint. Almost every piece evinces a grinning, glinting, all over force. There is an immediate chorus of mark and form that coagulates and dances on the surface when you view it from a foot or two. The paintings exhibit explosiveness in how, at one spot, almost nothing happens, but the speed of the overall shaping shoves the eye to other areas that are practically jumping with color and mark. The syncopation of rest and activity, boiling, roiling surface, and resolving image is where the value of these works resides. That aspect of an image resolving from the bombastic picture plane is part of the fun of viewing the pictures. What pulls out from that field of intense colors and marks, and how that happens to the eye, is what is exciting. The blurring of the forms seems to come from a constant rearticulating of those forms in space. Her best works display that investigation from the first moment. It’s certain that the images are meant to function within the precedent of abstraction, but they also evince the figurative elements in a willful way; the viewer is definitely meant to suss out the representational aspects.
At this point, however, I am led to ask a simple question. Is the facture that she uses really necessary to the ideas and feelings that inspire the works? Is this mode of putting down paint specific to the sorts of things she’s aiming at, or could she hit on them in another way? Will she progress, change, alter these methodologies? Obviously her way of working is resonating with certain aspects of the painterly marking of early Rothko, de Kooning, Bacon, and so many others; one could say she’s utilizing the whole history of mark making. Just walking around the museum’s holdings after seeing Brown’s work caused me to make those historical connections (seeing something she got from Bacon, something in a George Bellows work that rings with Brown’s own hand, etc). The interesting thing is that her hand doesn’t really just appropriate these old dead guys’ signature marks – she transforms them. Her hand never really seems too derivative to me, never really seems old. When I ask if her way of working is necessary, what I’m really asking is “is that all you got?” If anything I want her to do more, to gather an even larger range, to find more explosions and more subtlety.
All that said, however, I really find her compositional strategies fairly weak. When she’s looking to history, giving certain pictorial cues, she does fine. This holds for the classically inspired works (like “Bacchanal” and “Figures in a Landscape 2”) as well as the AbEx inspired works (such as “Lady Luck” and “Tender is the Night”). But she creates a third type of work with a frontal yet ambiguous room-space that exhibits an awkward, unbalanced layout (“Black Painting 1,” “These Foolish Things,” and “Tales From the Vault”). The awkwardness doesn’t appear to be arrived at through a process – it seems instead like a default, tentative situation. Given than she produces these paintings again and again, they most likely appear to her to be valid explorations. I find them mostly uninteresting as pictures. Almost none of her exciting mark-making or color situations occur in these works – often she’s using a very limited pallet. Thankfully this is not the primary direction of her painting.
Not the least of the things I noted while taking in the paintings was the question and implication of violence. Living in a world at war really makes me a little impatient with works that use violence in a frivolous way. I think the intersection of frivolity and masochism in many of Brown’s paintings can play against them because of the moment in which we’re living. I had to ask myself while walking around the room – what does she think about the war? Is she concerned? How does it come out? I don’t want to be moralistic about it, but the questions did come to my mind. Does our work HAVE to reflect our time in such a straightforward way? It’s a question I ask myself constantly, and it’s still up in the air for me. They are exciting images, both in how they are created and in how they function visually, but I’m often looking for more in my experience of art.
Overall I was impressed, but I’ll not jump on the bandwagon to canonize her work so quickly. That the wagon has already left doesn’t alarm me all that much – there will be time to gain perspective on these works over time. I don’t expect them to seem particularly important or paradigm shifting from a vantage point of 10 or 20 years, since they really don’t seem to be so right now. But they are fun, sometimes exciting, sometimes intrepid works, and Brown deserves some kudos for that. Anything that brings the spotlight to painting seems like a good thing to me.
And getting to see her talk about the work made an impression on me such that I found more in the work that maybe I wanted to on my own. Before the talk I was more dubious about some aspects of the painting, while afterward I found myself more accepting. Her tentative earnestness and almost naiveté (both affected?) lent, in retrospect, a kind of presence to the works that tempered their chaotic sadism with a touch of innocence. Sure, she knows the history of painting, she knows the history of abstract mark making – but she also just loves to mash that paint around. I think that stands for something. The joy of working with the paint is evident in her work and how she represented it in words. That expression of joy alone makes viewing her works a winning proposition for me, which is striking since I’m someone who might inwardly reject works such as hers outright.
There’s always something to be said for just submitting to the experience of seeing a work of art.
P.S. – By the way, the Des Moines Art Center itself is a great museum. It’s a little jewel of the Midwest. It’s got some good major holdings – not a lot of the filler-pieces-just-to-say-we’ve-got-one type of thing (though there are a few of them). It’s nice to see the canonized works from Richter, Johns, and Diebenkorn mixed in with Mehretu, Gursky, and Alex Brown. Their Kiefer is astounding – his work always has a way of making everything around it seem trivial. They have some really nice Sargents and one of Bacon’s screaming-pope-after-Velasquez paintings. A very nicely executed Sol LeWitt wall piece dominates one area of the museum, and below it sits several nice Judds. The place is worth a visit if you are in the area.
The Des Moines Art Center: