Progression of Art
The Day the World Turned Auerbach
All is not as it seems in this tortured portrait of a man; his face dissolved into a sea of molten blue and green brushwork. What appear to be swipes, streaks and raised smears of greasy oil paint, applied with Frank Auerbach's trademark ferocity, is revealed, on closer inspection, to be a mirror-flat copy. Taking artistic liberties with Auerbach's original, the colours in Brown's reworked painting have been heightened to take on a hyperrealistic digital glow that lends the image an added aura that verges on the grotesque and monstrous. Though it is possible to read the image on its own terms, with this image, Brown - who acknowledges the original painting in his title - confronts his audience and asks them to question their assumptions about fine art and how it is (or has been) judged according to its degree of originality.
While studying at Goldsmiths College of Art, Brown became aware of the fact that painting (and expressionism especially) was considered passé. Brown duly developed a new method of painting that re-worked existing pieces. Viewing the original canvas through his computer screen and/or books, Brown developed what he called a "healthy cynicism about what it is to look at the world [and] to be in a modern world surrounded by images". Responding to charges of plagiarism, Brown was quick to point out that the practice of artists replicating each other's work could be traced back through the history of art. That having been said, Brown's more flagrant act of copying (from existing copies) sits easily within the penchant for appropriation that became one of the signifiers of a decidedly playful and self-conscious postmodern art.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection, London
The Loves of Shepherds (After Doublestar by Tony Roberts)
Brown made a series of controversial paintings during the 1990s and early 2000s based on retro science fiction illustrations by Chris Foss, John Martin, and Antony Roberts. The original 1970s images were small in scale; designed to illustrate book covers. Copying from a computer copy once more, Brown distorted and reproduced the illustrations as vast expanded versions of the originals, bringing in areas of detail alongside expansive space vistas. In The Loves of Shepherds, based on Roberts's original illustration, a fantastical, almost operatic, vision opens out before us, where a floating space station veers towards a pulsing blue orb.
Though Brown stood accused of plagiarism - not least by Roberts who took legal action against him - several figures within the art establishment, including Sir Nicholas Serota, rallied behind Brown on grounds that the history of art was comfortable with this type of practice. For his part, Brown was keen to emphasize his input on the new work(s): "The colours are altered, the cities were redrawn and I was always inventing things to increase their intensity right from the start".
In an attempt to raise the artistic status of these images through microscopic areas of detail, dramatic, Mannerist foreshortening, and digitised colouring, Brown maximizes the theatricality of the image: "Art is theater and theater isn't real life," he observed, "it's an exaggeration of real life; it's what makes people engage with something". By appropriating images from 1970s "pulp" literature, the image might qualify as kitsch in respect of the fact that it tests the boundaries of fine art and popular taste.
Oil on canvas - Collection Nouvion-Rey
A hunched male figure glowers, his arms crossed in defiance. The blue aura that drenches the artwork imbues him (it) with a melodramatic, perhaps menacing, quality. Animated brushstrokes seem to swirl and twist while directional light falls in from the left, lending the figure a sculptural-like presence.
Brown produced this portrait in a move away from his style of direct appropriation. Here we see a more personal language start to surface, and while we are not now able to discern any direct points of intertextual reference, an austere compositional distance between sitter (fictitious in this instance) and artist emerges that recalls the formal preferences of the Dutch Master painting. Yet, in keeping with all Brown's previous work, the apparent painterly surface amounts to a deception; loose brushwork is instead rendered in a meticulous photoreal manner so what appears spontaneous is in fact a labour-intensive process.
There is also the synthetic aura to contemplate. It speaks very much of the digital age and invites us to consider the impact screens and printed matter have had on the way we experience contemporary art, and, indeed, modern life in general. The title of this work is borrowed from a David Bowie album, another playing act of borrowing (from one of the artist's personal idols).
Brown is interested in the power of dissonance, between what we perceive initially, and what we uncover on closer inspection. There is a certain irony in the fact that the pronounced digital influences on his work ask that it be experienced first-hand rather than through reproduction. As Brown explains, "The paintings do not photograph terribly well, which is the point really, because they have such flat, precise and sheer surfaces. You really need to see that". Brown also seeks to create feelings of disquiet, calling himself "the Stilton cheese of painting" because he believes spectators "like to be irritated", and "because it's fun" to irritate people through art. Tate Gallery writes that this work (and others like it) "question the genre of portraiture, revealing the inaccuracies of capturing real people through the illusory device of painting".
Oil on canvas
A tangled tornado of brushstrokes whirl and merge, loosely forming the shape of shoulders, neck and head. But against its sky-blue backdrop, this could just as easily be a strange, gnarling tree growing upwards from the ground into an angry mass of uncontained energy. Brushstrokes seem to almost take on three-dimensional form, creating the impression of a solid, sculptural mass, but they are in fact painted with photoreal accuracy, once more lending them a synthetic, digital quality. The slippery, watery quality of the brushstrokes also reveal that image has most likely been filtered through a computer screen, while Brown's colour scheme expands into the artificial greens and blues of some synthetic, imaginary cyberspace. "It's a good example of a painting that appears to be a painting of a sculpture, but a sculpture made of brush marks," said Brown.
This work typifies Brown's mid-career phase. He had abandoned his earlier commitment to straight-forward appropriation in favor of a more expressive, more abstract style. It is true that he based many of his subjects on existing works, but now he brought a freer feel for interpretation to his work. For instance, this work began as a clump of trees borrowed from a Chaim Soutine painting to which he added "the myth of the Green Man, the natural spirit of nature [and] also with the unpleasant ... darker side of nature".
Conveying a sense that a head could double as a tree lends the work a surrealistic quality. For Brown, however, the work owed more to the legacy of Art Brut (or Outsider Art), a term coined in the mid-twentieth century by Jean Dubuffet that describe the art work of the insane, prisoners, children and primitive artists, that were raw and brutish in their application.
Brown was also intoxicated with the idea that "the entire world was made of paint" and that "every person in the world was made of paint". That idea was not as outlandish as it seems once Brown described it as "a metaphor for everything in the world being made of other people's ideas" and that the artist cannot "look at anything without the knowledge that other people have looked at it and thought about it" already.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection, London
A pile of rotting green fruit tumbles over a tabletop while the ominous looking sky threatens a severe storm. Brown brings to his humble still life a palpable sense of foreboding in the darkening, impressionistic sky which is contrasted with the sharply focussed still life aspect. Art critic Martin Herbert described the work in fact as "a still life-in landscape of fetid viridian sacks or vegetation, marooned in [a] green world".
Brown made this painting having become established as a photorealist interpreter of found sources. The motif for this painting is based on a still life by Gustav Courbet, who similarly invested dramatic lighting and subtle symbolism into his rolling tabletop studies. Brown makes reference both to Courbet, and to the whole, centuries old, history of still life painting, bringing it up to date with strange, synthetic lighting and an unsettling aura. Brown also merges the still life with the striking landscape lending the work a greater sense of generic ambiguity.
As much as the historical references are important to Brown, he stated that this work can be read as a powerful statement on its own terms: "I want people to think of them [the apples] as a reclining nude, to walk around the landscape, to look at the rather repellent green colour, to wonder whether it's sunset or sunrise and why this strange, greenish-white yellow light is coming down from nowhere and shining on this little event which is happening". One can of course admire the painting on its own terms for Brown's ability to heighten the quality of decay through his skilful rendering of the uneasy, sickly colored fruit.
Oil on canvas - Collection the artist
In this ghoulish, haunting portrait, a trembling, upturned figure emerges from the darkness like a spectre from the deep. Blue hands, a blackened face and a floating, groundless form lend the subject a grisly, supernatural quality, while aqueous brushstrokes fall over their form like molten metal. Brown paints this subject in his trademark photorealist style, rendering apparent painterly marks with careful precision.
Like many of his paintings, the subject of this work is figurative and references a single historical artwork. In this case, however, the work references two works: Diego Velasquez's Portrait of Innocent X, (1650) and Francis Bacon's famous "screaming pope" version of Velazquez's portrait, Head VI, (1949). Brown pays homage to Bacon's copy but moves beyond it at the same time: "I was trying to figure out a way to use the Velazquez to make it my own. By taking away the head and turning it upside down, it's not about the Pope any longer. And also it's not about the Francis Bacon painting, because by taking away the head, the thing that made the Francis Bacon painting great isn't there anymore".
Lending the subject a sense of weightlessness was important to Brown. He achieved this by isolating a detail from the original(s), such as the blue hands, and rotating them. This action also abstracts the original meaning, allowing us to read it in terms of visual attributes such as color, atmosphere and depth, leaving the painting open to fresh interpretations. "Reading a painting of mine is a very subjective thing," said Brown, "it all depends on what historical baggage the viewer has at their disposal...".
Oil on panel
Drawing 8 (After Tiepolo)
A swirling mass of energy comes together in this detailed drawing. It conveys the brewing tension of a storm gathering pace. Figurative fragments emerge from the dust, kicking outwards with desperation before dissolving into the centre. As referenced in the title, this work was made in response to the loose, fluid drawings of 18th century Venetian painter Tiepolo, whose complex figurative arrangements and linear strands Brown both echoes and abstracts.
This work represents a mature phase in Brown's practice, moving beyond painting into the language of drawing; a medium that he has found to allow for more expressive, immediate forms of mark making. Much of his drawing has been made with reference to cartoons (which were originally made as studies for paintings) from the Italian Renaissance. Brown has said of the great Italian Masters, "I love the fluidity of their line. It's that which I'm trying to borrow especially. The sense of movement".
As well as bringing in references to the Renaissance, as with his earlier paintings, Brown also infuses his drawings with a more contemporary style of mark making, with crisp, clean lines lifted from a variety of sources, forming the same visual "mash-up" as his paintings. He writes, "I borrow from anything, whether it's Disney or Rembrandt or Rubens. I think there are always lessons to be learned".
Brown also carefully integrates the old-fashioned frame here into a vital component of the art, giving it the revered quality of a museum relic. Blending together classical art references with a cartoonish, digital style in this way brings Brown's drawing practice in line with the work of a range of contemporary artists including Inka Essenhigh and Julie Mehretu.
Indian ink and watercolour on paper
Let me ferry you out to sea To see who you could have been When the time comes to row back in You'll be in the place you should have been
A bronze, female figure crouches in a classical pose while balancing a teeming mass of congealed colored paint strands over her right shoulder. The clean simplicity of the bronze sculpture is undercut with this messy, riotous burst of color, injecting an emblem of the past with the shock of the new. Brown's careful placing of the painterly matter here shifts the model's once relaxed pose into an act of defence as she appears to shield herself from an unwanted gaze or even an unexpected attack.
Sculptural works are a recent departure for Brown (notwithstanding the fact that his admiration for Frank Auerbach was founded on his sculptural-like application of paint) allowing him to expand the postmodern, appropriated language of his earlier works into three dimensions. Within his paintings Brown often invested in a sense of form and volume through dramatic, chiaroscuro lighting that seems to recede into, rather than expand outwards from, the picture plane. In sculpture, however, he is able to explore the frenetic layers of same-size brushstrokes that define his oeuvre, but they are now hovering in tactile, rather than imagined, space.
Re-styling a found object with an almost violent interruption, Brown echoes the 'Detournements' of Asger Jorn, but the plastic, synthetic colors in Brown's sculpture bring it into the glaring, vivid light of the 21st century. Brown's intervention also opens the sculpture up into a more imaginative, complex narrative, particularly when given such a long, lyrical title. Taking an old statue and changing its identity through an act of intervention is also a common trope with Scottish artist Jonathan Owen, who carves into the object's original form and transforms it into a surreal, uncanny new motif.
Oil paint and acrylic on bronze