Cecily Brown, Combing the Hair (Beach), 2015. Watercolor, pastel, ink and oil on paper. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.  Purchased through the Board of Overseers Acquisition Fund. ©2015 Cecily Brown.

Where are They Now? Cecily Brown in Santa Barbara

A work in our collection, Combing the Hair (Beach) (2015), is on view as part of the exhibition Cecily Brown: Rehearsal at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santa Barbara through June 3, 2018. It joins more than seventy small drawings, large-scale works, and sketchbooks featured in the exhibition which the press release describes as an assemblage of Brown’s "iterative reworking of motifs from her wide-reaching arsenal of source material." The term rehearsal refers to the traditional function of the drawing as an academically rendered preparatory sketch. To rehearse derives from old French "rehercier," which is to go over again repeatedly in order to increase understanding.

Repeating a word over and over again gives rise to semantic satiation, a psychological phenomenon wherein meaning in the recurring word loses traction. The opposite effect occurs when viewing paintings by Cecily Brown. Characteristic to Brown’s canvas are jarring mixtures of color, ranging from earthy hues to flushed flesh tones that are combined in passages of energetic and bold strokes of the brush. Bodies in motion being the main subject of Brown’s work, her depictions of activities range from sexual encounters to the daily routine of combing one's own hair. However, at first glance, the painterly gestures may easily be mistaken as being purely abstract. Yet, fragmented figural forms—an arm here, a leg there—materialize on the canvas, achieved if, and only if, one gives over to the demands of Brown’s paintings: a dedicated, concentrated looking.

Cecily Brown, Combing the Hair (Beach), 2015. Watercolor, pastel, ink and oil on paper. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.  Purchased through the Board of Overseers Acquisition Fund. ©2015 Cecily Brown.
Cecily Brown, 
Combing the Hair (Beach), 

Winding lines, terse marks, dense patches of pigments, and paint dribbles span Combing the Hair (Beach), imbuing the work with a restless sensation. At the top of the composition, a fragment of a male torso in thin red line floats to the left of a two-legged body, sprawled out as if frozen in a sports action shot. On the left of the work, a face silently peers out from a soft cloud of pale pink, and a set of crudely-sketched hands hover below. Layering of colors and the superimposition of lines create a particular density in the center of the work, yet figures lurk here too. A woman dressed in white garb raises two brown tree trunk arms to comb her shock of red hair—a hue and coif reminiscent of Edgar Degas’s Combing the Hair (1895). Brown draws inspiration from a wide range of artists—Nicolas Poussin, Paolo Veronese, Peter Paul Rubens, Francisco de Goya, Edgar Degas, Francis Bacon, Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and others. In a fashion similar to how a magpie might sift through materials and select glimmering objects of its liking, Brown occasionally extracts elements from artists’ works and adapts these appropriated remnants into her paintings.

A sharp, teal blue T-shape suggests the ocean, while murky, tan strokes representing a spit of sand complete the beach scene populated by a network of other figures. Earth and flesh tones frame recognizable figural fragments that serve as visual checkpoints, anchoring the work firmly in the realm of this world. Brown refers to terrestrial existence in order to arouse visceral responses from the activities depicted. Combing hair, for instance, can elicit sentiments that range from comfort to pain to a mode of auto-eroticism. Although it presents a basic gesture, the work is subject to a multiplicity of potential readings which reinforce the pervading open-endedness in Brown’s content and style.

"One of the main things I would like my work to do is to reveal itself slowly, continuously and for you never to feel that you’re really finished looking at something," said the artist in the video below. Operating from this logic, Brown’s canvases are in a state of flux, which is amplified by the artist’s brushwork and complex imagery. Learning to read Brown’s aesthetic language and visual codes rewards viewers with a clarity and comprehension of the subjects and forms in her canvases. Brown’s figures exist amidst abstract elements and swirls of color, offering us new perspectives on figures engaged in actions that are at once familiar and entirely new. She carves out an indeterminate route as she traverses the canvas, inviting onlookers to witness the aftermath—and abstraction—that dot this spontaneous journey.

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Tags: where are they now, collections