Abstract Expressionism lives in the paintings of the British-born New York artist Cecily Brown. It seems paradoxical -- no art style is more passé than Ab Ex, and no young artist more chic than Brown. So if she is a latter-day Willem de Kooning, she’s a post-feminist one. Where the Dutch house-painter objectified women in terms of his own psychological distress as googly eyed, toothy monsters, Brown pictures them as porn stars, empowered by their radical lubricity. This liquid joissance is echoed in her delicious manipulations of oil paint, which virtually seems good enough to eat.
Let me warn you, however, that Brown’s new works are something of a tease. It’s true that the visitor to her current show at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea is greeted by a trio of large paintings all titled Skulldiver -- and this is definitely not a reference to a deep-sea diving helmet with a skull inside -- but most of the works are likely to disappoint collectors trolling for avant-garde titillation. Many of the new pictures seem like bravura painterly exercises. And though their hectic flurries of brushstrokes and swooping painterly passages are briefly seductive, they ultimately fail to deliver much more than provocative surfaces. The lady can still paint, but now her canvases seem to lust after some kind of meaning that just isn’t there.I do like the way Brown’s dependably lively color evokes but never describes a landscape, an interior, a boudoir. Viewed from a distance, across Gagosian’s pristine galleries, the pictures don’t dominate; they beckon with silky promise. Up close they just look busy, with nary a moment of perceptual transformation. The nearly 20 small canvases in the show lack conviction, and seem like swatches of fabric cut from a larger bolt of cloth. Not everyone agrees; I heard someone say that the show was sold out, with prices approaching $700,000 per picture. With success like that, it’s no surprise that Rizzoli has published a lavishly illustrated 264-page hardcover book devoted to her painting, with an essay by the art historian and critic Dore Ashton. Brown’s paintings, and the grossly enlarged passages cropped from them, crowd next to portions of 19th-century naughty photos, images of crowds, crucifixions, orgies and death scenes by Rowlandson, Andrea Mantegna, Titian, Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, Francisco Goya and El Greco. OK, we get it. Unlike many radical Minimalists, Conceptualists and other avant-garde artists, Brown claims a passionate affinity for the history of European painting. She can sidle up to Manet and the Old Masters, but osmosis doesn’t guarantee art-historical longevity.
Propped on shims against the gallery walls, back outwards, as if in temporary transit, are some of the greatest masterpieces of modern art. Or so it seems from these objects, which are in fact Muniz’s obsessive one-to-one replicas of the actual back sides of such icons as Starry Night, The Red Studio, A Sunday on Le Grande Jatte, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Nighthawks and American Gothic. His copies of the stretchers and labels and other ephemera are so convincing that we can easily imagine the famous originals. Of course, experts decipher the history of objects by examining their backs, a view rarely available to forgers."If you had an obvious fake of one of these paintings, people would know it. But if you show the back, well, maybe you have the real thing. . . !" says Muniz. "While the image’s object is to remain eternally the same, its support is constantly changing, telling its story, showing its scars, its old gallery and museum labels and periodic clichés," After he convinced the various museums to let him photograph the backs of their great pictures, it took a long time for this project to materialize. He eventually decided to replicate every label, chalk mark indicator, paper stain, screw, piece of hardware, bit of tape and nail hole that mark the backs of the paintings. Muniz organized a 25-person team of craftsmen, technicians, conservators, graphic designers, artists and forgers to help make these pieces. (Be sure to watch the video in the gallery stairwell, on which Muniz talks about the project).
In the rear gallery are more than a dozen of the artist’s meditations on the disappearing reality of the 8 x 10 in. copy print, used in the old days in the production of newspapers and magazines, now obsolete in the digital age, which allows photographers to transmit their images instantly via email and the internet. Culling MoMA’s archives of New York Times photographs, Muniz and his team selected some pivotal news photographs and replicated their backs as collages. These range from the Hindenburg disaster, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti and Jesse Owens’ historic Olympic victory to the historic picture of Nixon and Khruschchev’s 1959 Kitchen Debate. Signatures, measurements, crop marks and arcane notations reveal the history of how and when each picture was published over time, since the master image was used over and over again. These replicas are a sophisticated elegy to the poignant materiality and temporal footprints of a process that is now obsolete.
Ironically, digital images of these works -- themselves replicas -- hardly does them justice. For the complete effect, you must see these works in situ. Art world insiders and professionals will be the ones who most appreciate the results of Muniz’s six-year obsession. It’s conceptual art at its best.
Cecily Brown, Sept. 20-Oct. 25, 2008, at Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
Vik Muniz, "Verso," Sept. 6-Oct. 11, 2008, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., 530 West 22 Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY lives and works in New York City. She grew up in Maine.