Cecily Brown and the Associative Abstract Painting
Oct 18, 2016
When we say that a painting is figurative we mean that its imagery is derived from the real world. By that definition, Cecily Brown is a figurative artist. The British-born New York artist makes paintings that commonly include the human body and other figurative elements in their imagery. But in the opinion of many viewers, critics, gallerists, curators and collectors, Cecily Brown is an abstract artist. So is it possible to be both figurative and abstract? To Brown, the point is moot. She says, “I often avoid using the terms figuration and abstraction because I've always tried to have it both ways. I want the experience of looking at one of my paintings to be similar to the process of making the painting - you go from the big picture to something very intense and detailed, and then back again.” Many of the most famous abstract paintings, like Black Square by Kazimir Malevich and White Flag by Jasper Johns, feature apparently figurative imagery. So maybe the more important question has to do less with figuration and more to do with interpretation. Figurative elements can be interpreted as objective, symbolic, totally abstract or none of the above. Since her work occupies an ambiguous dimension that lends itself to many definitions, maybe we can examine the work of Cecily Brown and through it find our way through the obfuscated world of figurative abstract art.
Neighborhoods of Association
Many of us played a game when we were young called free association. If you do not remember, the game goes like this: one person offers a stimulus (a picture, a sound, a word) and the other person says whatever association immediately and instinctively comes to mind. If the first person holds up a picture of a duck, the other person might say quack. The goal is not to be objective; otherwise the second person would say duck. Rather, the point it is to abstractly associate the stimulus with something else, whatever else comes to mind.
The ability to form associations is one of the tools that help sentient creatures survive. A squirrel hears a car engine and associates it with terror, and thus lives. Association is also a building block of culture. It is a source of inspiration and creativity. We associate an image or a smell or a sound with something unrelated and thus make intellectual leaps toward innovations previously unimagined. And association it is also one of the many positions from which people tend to interact with abstract art. For example, an abstract symbol like a square might provoke an association with order or stability. An abstract symbol like a white American flag might provoke associations with nationalism, the meaning of whiteness, or the nature and meaning of patterns and groupings.
Cecily Brown - The Sleep Around and the Lost and Found, 2014, oil on canvas. © Cecily Brown
Free Association Is Not Free
The most common, and often immediate manifestation of association is mood. We see, smell, hear or feel something and suddenly enter into a different emotional state of being based on our associations with that stimulus. The mood change can even be transcendent, meaning it can take on a mystical, spiritual or otherworldly aspect. But the irony of the term free association is that our associations are never truly free. They are informed and influenced by any number of factors, almost always personal, intimate, idiosyncratic, and entirely unique to our own experiences.
Abstract Expressionists intuitively paint in order to express something deeply personal. They connect with their subconscious and work from there. Since viewers cannot enter directly into the subconscious of the artist, the associations that normally come to mind for the viewer relate to common, universal, primal moods like anxiety, fear, sadness or joy. But when an Abstract Expressionist painter adds figurative elements to a work, the resulting associations take on a more personal dimension. For example, when looking at one of the paintings of women Willem de Kooning made, we are not only associating with the primal emotion conveyed through the formal aspects of the work, we are also associating with our own pre-existing associations with the female form.
Cecily Brown - Figures in a Landscape 1, 2001, oil on linen. © Cecily Brown
Women, Men and Cecily Brown
The art of Cecily Brown has often been compared to those of Willem de Kooning. Brown often uses a similar color palette to de Kooning. But what these two artists truly share is their depiction of the human form in their otherwise abstract works. The very idea that human bodies, in part or in whole, can be presented as abstractions is controversial. It is fine to present a square or a flag or a number or a word as an abstraction. Those are symbols invented to communicate ideas. They have no objective value aside from their ability to convey a concept. But entities like human bodies, animals, flowers or trees are not conceptual imaginings. They are real. And in the case of sentient creatures, they are usually considered sacred.
De Kooning is often derided for his paintings of women. The paintings are considered by many people to be violent, grotesque and offensively anti-feminine. That is because the associations people have with them are personal, intimate and concrete. The paintings of Cecily Brown have likewise been called feminist, erotic, overtly sexual, and in some cases, strangely, even grotesque. But if we read these pieces as abstract then these are not people; they are meaningless forms, or at best symbols. They are no different than splotches, drips, stains, triangles, circles, squares or flags. So what about them causes such powerful emotional associations to come to mind?
Cecily Brown - The Gang s All Here, 1998, oil on linen. © Cecily Brown
Humanizing and Dehumanizing
It is the representational element of these works that causes these associations to emerge. As when we see a mass grave we, a painting featuring a multitude of naked bodies or body parts may evoke a sense of the meaningless of individuality. Seeing so much anonymous nudity may cause us to feel that human sexuality is shallow. If we feel that human bodies are no different than leaves or twigs or rocks, just natural things to be tossed in a pile, we can feel dehumanized and devalued. Such representational associations communicate something nihilistic.
But with a shift in our perspective, we can relieve ourselves of such dramatic associations. Partly that is thanks to the anonymity of the figures in Cecily Brown works we do not relate to these figures as individuals to be sanctified. We can remove ourselves from any responsibility to personalize, and thus humanize them. In this context, these figures become abstract expressions of something ancient, universal, and essential to our nature. They become beautiful. The so-called sexually explicit imagery becomes an abstraction of the concept of all life, the biological imperative, and the ingrained, beloved bias almost all beings feel toward hormonal attraction. From this perspective, the human figures Cecily Brown paints connect us with transcendent notions of how meaningful attraction and sexuality are to our natures, and to esoteric concepts such as love.
Cecily Brown - Service de Luxe, 1999, oil on linen. © Cecily Brown
We can see that whenever a painter incorporates figuration into an otherwise abstracted image it is likely to inspire conversations about the meaning of the work. It can even challenge the meaning of the words abstraction, figuration, objectivity and representation. It can be argued that all paintings are objective by nature, by virtue of the fact that they exist, and that all content is abstract since it is dependent on how viewers perceive it. As for Cecily Brown, she says, “I’ve always liked the sense of mind and eye collaborating to complete the thought.” From that point of view, subjective interpretation is vital.
When you see the works of Cecily Brown, do you interpret them as sexually explicit? Do you interact with the figures as intimate portrayals of beings to whom you feel a personal connection? Or do you interpret her paintings as abstract assortments of forms, textures, colors and lines? Do you interact with the figures in them as anonymous phantasms; not beings but concepts of beings intended to serve as totems rather than objective representations? If we consider Cecily Brown an inheritor of the traditions of Abstract Expressionism, we must believe she is working from her own subconscious, and presenting images that communicate her state of mind, not ours. But since it is up to us as the British artist says, to complete the thought, it is equally important to acknowledge that whatever associations we make when we look at her work, those associations are abstract, personal, intimate, and ultimately reflective of ourselves.
Featured image: Cecily Brown - Skulldiver III (Flightmask), 2006. © Cecily Brown
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio