Berlin, September 2015: The boisterous commotion of a packed opening dimmed to a murmur as the door to the back office slid closed, leaving Cecily Brown and me a brief escape from her current Berlin solo exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts. Both jetlagged, having departed JFK only 24 hours earlier, we were grateful for the momentary calm.
Often pigeonholed as what the artist herself facetiously refers to as some type of “fifth generation Abstract Expressionist,” London-born New York-based painter Cecily Brown’s work is defined by the visible physicality of her stroke, the frequently engulfing size of her canvases and the palpable struggle between figuration and abstraction—all attributes that quickly draw references to artists like Willem de Kooning. Valuable parallels can certainly be drawn and a discourse can be had about Art History with a capital A, but to a certain extent only at the risk of distracting from the work itself. Dynamic and intuitive, Brown’s paintings are about experiencing her experience with an inherently visceral medium. As Terry R. Myers, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago says in the show’s accompanying catalogue, her work “claims its own territory.”
While crowds coalesced outside and stared down walls full of her works, we spoke about her fears, relationship with “style,” and what she would do if she didn’t have to paint.
The Sleep Around and the Lost and Found, 2014, Oil on linen, 246 x 262 cm. Courtesy of the artist and CFA, Berlin. Photo: Jens Ziehe
Nicole Rodríguez: What does the title The Sleep Around and The Lost & Found refer to?
Cecily Brown: It’s the title of one painting and it was the first painting that I knew would be in the show. I never work on a body of work knowing where it’s going to go. I like to be a lot more open than that. But with that painting—it was probably two years ago—I knew that it was for Berlin. It just had that feeling about it. And when I titled it that set the tone in my head for what the rest of the exhibition would feel like. The title itself is from one of my favorite songs from when I was a teenager, “Say Hello Wave Goodbye,” by Marc Almond’s Soft Cell.
NR: Do you feel like the titles play into the narrative of the show at all?
CB: Not really, no. The way I title things is sometimes fairly random. I will make lists of titles that I feel could go and I use them or don’t use them sometime in the future. So I don’t want to say. It’s not as calculated as that.
NR: Your paintings are often described as “frenetic” and urgent.” Do you think this accurately describes your painting process as a whole? How do you begin?
CB: I think it’s a combination of frenetic and calm—it’s not all frenetic. There are definitely urgent moments, but in a way not as many as I would like. The ideal is when you are painting fast and you feel like you know what to do before you are doing it and in a way you are almost just keeping up with yourself—that’s the most exciting. But there is a lot of time when you are just plodding away and there is none of that urgency and magic and you are just putting on paint and hoping that something works out.
NR: Finding solutions?
CB: Yeah, and there is a lot of it that is less romantic than that. I’d say there are only really a few hours in the course of any painting that are filled with that energy and the rest of it is filled with pauses, filled with looking and now knowing what to do. So it kind of goes fast and slow. I think in a way what you see in the painting is evident—it does show how they are made. There are passages that are really fast and passages that are really slow and I’ve always likes the idea that there are different tempos within a painting, like a piece of music. Where it might get really fast but then it gets much slower and softer. My whole thing is that there is not one mood to a painting but that they are multi-layered in how the paint is applied but also in layers of meaning and layers of mood. So there is never one thing going on. It’s full of contradictions.
NR: Do you feel as your career goes on that the tempo has changed?
CB: I think it changes over time but it’s quite a slow change. I don’t think so much has changed even since art school, really. Someone asked me earlier “When did you find your style?” and I felt like well… There are things I did in art school that really aren’t that different from what I do now. But hopefully this is a lot more sophisticated version of it and a lot more knowing, richer. But my impulses have not changed.
NR: If you had to describe that “style” now, what would it be?
CB: I think most people, artists of my generation, balk even at the word “style.” Like, “I don’t have a style! What are you talking about?!” It’s not Abstract Expressionism because that was a long time ago. Is it fifth-generation Abstract Expressionism? I think it pulls from a lot of different periods in art. It’s sort of Post-Post-Modern. It draws on an awful lot of sources but it hopefully churns them all up to become its own thing. People always talk about how I work from Old Masters, but I feel as though I try to absorb everything and chop it all up, fragment it, and hopefully it come out as something new. So I don’t know how I would describe my own style. But if I had to describe it to anyone who was not as familiar with art…
NR: Or to yourself as a student…
CB: Okay. If I had to describe it to someone that knew absolutely nothing about art—say, the cab driver—I would say: it looks abstract at first glance but the more you look at it the more you realize that it’s full of figurative elements. It’s actually teaming with activity and content. It lures you into this false sense of security where you think you are looking at something seductive, but once you start looking you become trapped in it.
The Triumph of Virtue, 2014–2015, Oil on linen, 196 x 246 cm. Courtesy of the artist and CFA, Berlin. Photo: Genevieve Hanson
NR: Instead of the breaking down of the figure, your bodies seem to be in constant evolution, leaping forward from the primordial stew. This is perhaps most felt with a work like The Triumph of Virtue in this CFA show. Do you feel you reduce a figure or do you feel as though you are allowing the figure to emerge?
CB: I think it’s both. I think it depends on the painting. I am often trying to keep the figure in there. Sometimes I feel like I turn my back for half and hour and the figure goes. I feel like in my attempts of trying to find a new way to make a figure I often just loose it entirely. People used to think it was figures hidden by abstract paint and it’s really not that. If the figure disappears it is not through lack of trying. [Laughs]. I often feel like I am having to drag the figure out when it disappears. But when it gets too clear it makes me nervous, so it really is this battle back and forth of clarity. How clear do you want to be and how little do you have to give to get the information across? How much is too much? How much is too little? So it’s always playing with that back and forth.
NR: How often do you have to suppress yourself from abstracting?
CB: I feel like the abstract ones allow the more figurative ones to exists and vice versa. I never really feel I think about just one painting. I think about groups of works. And if they get too abstract on the one hand, I’ll want to create a clear figurative one. So often in my studio I’ll have this really schizophrenic moment where there will be one that looks almost entirely abstract next to one that is clear and I really feel as though one gives the other one permission to exist.
NR: Because of the dialogue between them, are you really strict about which works should be exhibited together?
CB: Yeah, sometimes it’s really obvious from the studio which works need to stick together and sometimes it just emerges when you are installing. There are always those surprises when you install. But I always want there to be a conversation between the different paintings—almost an argument. I never want to say, “this is the way to do it.”
NR: Who is your ideal viewer? How do they go about looking? And do you have them in mind at all as you sew a composition together?
CB: My ideal viewer is probably other artists first and foremost. Not to sound snobby towards everybody else, but you do feel as though if other artists like it then you are saying something that’s interesting. Because obviously the fear is that you are just spewing up this stuff and it’s all been done and you’re just wallowing in you own mind…
NR: Is that still your fear?
CB: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I literally do not know up to this day—even walking in here—is that any good? I do not know. There are paintings in the studio that I have been working on for months and months and months and I left thinking, You know I really love this one, and totally doubting it the next minute. It sounds really cheesy but it’s true. Once in a while there will be a painting where I feel, Yeah that’s a really good one, but 95 percent of the time I’m just as much in the dark as when I was a student about whether something is working or not. Maybe that’s because I’m quite fickle and neurotic, or because I don’t have enough self-belief. I might love something but 10 minutes later questions creep in like, But is it any good? Is it interesting to anyone else? I might be interested because I am so involved in it, but is it actually worth the space it takes up? Is it adding anything? Is it enough that it’s pleasant to look at?
The Sleep Around and the Lost and Found, 2015, Installation view at CFA Berlin. Courtesy of the artist and CFA Berlin. Photo: Jens Ziehe
NR: What would be the ideal place to look at your works?
CB: Of course there is a charm to seeing things in the studio and people love seeing things in the studio because they are in all stages of progress, but it’s not ideal at all. I have so many things in my studio; I have so many things going on at once you can’t see anything clearly. Even I can’t see anything clearly! For me the exhibition has become, in a way, the last part of my process—seeing it in a clean room, hung on the wall. You can’t imagine that when you are in the studio. I’m not saying the white cube is the perfect place to see them, but the perfect place would be one with plenty of light, plenty of space, plenty of time, and not too many other people.
NR: If your final punctuation mark is in the gallery, how do you know when you are done with a piece?
CB: Oh god. I don’t feel like I can give an original answer because you don’t really know until you do. With every work it’s different. It’s always something that changes and moves. Obviously, I try to keep myself on my toes and don’t want to make the same painting again and again—which I could easily do if I didn’t pay attention. So where you stop is the whole identity of the painting.
NR: Do you ever feel you have exhausted all possibilities?
CB: There are paintings in The Sleep Around and The Lost and Found that were stopped way before others; some that have gone on a year and then one that has gone on for two weeks next to each other and that’s the sort of dialogue that I like—that they are both equally valid and both just as possible. But it’s the biggest question, the biggest ongoing question. Often a painting is best in a way—it’s freshest and most seductive—in those first two days, but I am rarely ever satisfied. Often I see something after those first days that I am in love with and I don’t touch. I’ll keep it up in the studio and then three weeks later I’m like “Shut up! What is that?!” and I move on with it. But it’s always a questions of finding the right moment back in.
Sometimes you feel as though you have painted yourself out of the picture and—I think I am paraphrasing [Phillip] Guston—it’s not that you think this is the perfect painting, but you just feel like it’s done; I just don’t know what else to do. You say to yourself, “There are bits of it I don’t even love, but I have no idea what else to do and anything else done will be embellishing.” It’s better to not fiddle and let it be. Guston’s idea of painting yourself out of the picture is just that it has nothing to do with me anymore. Like, it’s a thing in the world. It’s got its own rules and who am I to argue with that?
Torch, 2014–2015, Oil on linen, 170 x 211 cm. Courtesy of the artist and CFA Berlin. Photo: Genevieve Hanson
NR: Are there any works in this particular show that you feel like this about?
CB: Yeah, Torch and… In a way they all have a bit of that because they all tell you…stop. My cliché is I don’t really finish, I just stop. With the kind of painting I do, with my “style,” you can kinda add to it forever. With Thug in a Landscape—which is, I guess, a really typical one in a way—I could just go on and on and on with that one. Then you are forced to stop by the quality of the paint and you technically can’t go on with it much longer because it would start falling apart. So something there is an outside thing like that—technical rules. With Thug in Landscape if I had gone on with it much further it’s going to not work out because it just looses the vitality.
NR: You mention “typical” in terms of Thug… What do you mean by that?
CB: Kinda all over. What someone once said a while ago: “It looks like a hand grenade was thrown into a Versace fashion show,” which I thought was a compliment! [Laughs] It turned out years later, the person who said it—it was not meant nicely. I was like, “Yes… I like that…” [Laughs]. But that sort of chopped up fragmented figures. When I first started out and someone said, “No, that’s not typical,” I sort of vowed that I would never make something that you could call “typical” but, you know, 15 years later I would say that is a typical one. It’s the one that if you were in a prison cell that’s probably the painting that I would make again and again and again for the rest of my life. Because, in a way, it’s the one where I am really trying to get my hands on what is this subject. Which, in the end, is just a man… in a space… That’s harder than it sounds to do.
NR: A process of bringing him out and then shoving him back in again.
Thug in a Landscape, 2014–2015, Oil on linen, 196 x 246 cm. Courtesy of the artist and CFA Berlin. Photo: Genevieve Hanson
NR: So when you pick up your brush, what terrifies you?
CB: I try to not think about what people will think and what people will say, but that terrifies me. Thankfully I was blessed with really bad reviews very early on so I had super low expectations, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it bothers me that people are vicious… What terrifies me is that there is nothing to add and that it’s all been done. That even though I have a personal urge, a mission, to push paint around, that it’s all for nothing. And like what’s the point.
NR: Have you always felt like that?
NR: Like you are just riding the roller coaster?
CB: I don’t always feel I am because then I wouldn’t be able to continue doing it. But often when I’m not physically painting that’s what I think. But I don’t think it’s enough to stop me from doing it. I stopped painting for two or three years after art school. I was still trying to make work, but you can talk yourself out of painting in 5 minutes.
NR: What were you doing during the time that you stopped?
CB: I was drawing, doing animations. I was trying to paint but just not with oil. I wasn’t allowed to use canvas, wasn’t allowed to use oil. So I was doing these awful assemblages, video—just some really installation-y stuff.
NR: Did you feel as though that was something completely separate from “what you do”?
CB: No. I think the thought behind it was the same. I found that when I worked outside anything with edges though, that ultimately it was incredibly frustrating for me, and that the edges are a hugely important part for me—that it does have a boundary. Within that boundary I want to be as imaginative as I can but actually when I have no edges it was so frustrating because the not-knowing-when-to-stop thing, I literally could go on forever. With these collage-y things I was adding more and more stuff and it just seemed so open-ended. I think my paintings are very open-ended so thank god for the edges and the corners! I need the edges and the corners!
NR: Is color just a means to an end then?
CB: It’s funny I always find questions about color quite difficult. I feel as though it’s the most formal side of my work. When you put two colors together you have never paired before it throws up new possibilities. It’s one of those things that are pretty limitless but still something that happens really naturally. Something will happen in one painting— a certain blue with a certain violet—and if I get excited about it, it will move on to the next painting. So if you could see a flipbook of works of the last 15 years you would probably see washes of color come and go. Sometimes I have to say “Stop it.” If something is becoming a habit I often have to brush it away, until the next time when you come back around to it. The longer I paint the more exciting it gets because there is more of my own work to experience and come around to.
NR: What has been the trajectory?
CB: From what I can figure out… There are more painters that think it’s okay to paint. If there is a legacy, it’s contributing, being another painter out there that leads people to think that it’s all right. When I was young, there were not that many painters that were alive and close to my age and painting. But it’s cyclical and there will probably be another huge backlash soon. I think now that everyone accepts that art history is no longer progressing, that you really can use any medium, there is less of a hierarchy, less of one medium on top of the pyramid. Certainly not painting. Paint is almost the sad cousin. The medium you choose when you cannot think of another way other than paint.
NR: If you did pick another medium, what would you choose?
CB: I’d be a writer.
ArtSlant would like to thank Cecily Brown and Contemporary Fine Arts Berlin for their assistance in making this interview possible.
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