Cecily Brown - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown, the daughter of British novelist, Shena Mackay, and influential art critic and curator, David Sylvester, grew up in the idyllic countryside of Surrey. As the child of somewhat bohemian parents, she grew up immersed in the arts. Sylvester introduced her to the painter, Francis Bacon, when Brown was still young and the influence of Bacon has remained a constant. Her mother's creativity, work ethic, and drive also encouraged Brown to aim for a career in the arts, although she claims that, by the age of three, she had already decided to become an artist.
In 1985, at sixteen, Brown left her more traditional academic school in order to focus on art at the Epsom School of Art and Design in Surrey. Two years later, she moved to London, where she took drawing and printmaking courses at Morley College, studied under the painter Maggi Hambling, and cleaned houses to financially support herself. Brown had forged a close relationship with Bacon, regarding him as a close friend; the two had grown close while visiting local art exhibitions together. In 1993, Brown graduated from Slade School of Fine Art in London with a BA in Fine Arts and with First Class Honors. While at Slade, she was awarded first prize in the National Competition for British Art Students.
Brown found it difficult to establish herself in the art scene of early 1990s London, at the pulsing heart of which were the Young British Artists with their attention-commanding installations and spectacle works. She believed she might fare better in New York City, where she had fallen in love with the sunlight in a previous stay as an exchange student during her years in college. The contrast between bright, vivacious New York to gloomy London intrigued her, and so in 1995, she made the move across the Atlantic.
Brown began working for an animation studio in New York City and experimented with that medium. She created an erotic mixed-media film titled Four Letter Heaven, which premiered at the 1995 Telluride Film Festival. She was slightly skeptical of painting and first spent her time in the city exploring other creative avenues. As she put down roots in the city, Brown lived the life of the stereotypical starving artist, working as a waitress and living on pizza and bagels. During the evenings, she spent her time making art and eventually began focusing solely on painting in her studio in the Meatpacking district of Manhattan. She painted almost feverishly, typically working on as many as twenty paintings at once.
Brown's large-scale paintings depicted a kind of chaotic and violent sexuality. The works featured a flurry of bodies, which were abstract but still discernible. Her success came fairly quickly, with her first solo show taking place at Deitch Projects in 1997. After a second successful exhibition the following year and the resulting commercial and critical praise, Brown relinquished starving-artist status. At the age of 29, Brown was picked up by the Gagosian Gallery, one of the most esteemed and influential galleries in the world. Although she was represented by a major gallery and her work had begun appearing in prominent museums, Brown, whose confidence in her abilities was easily shaken, was surprised by her own achievement.
During those early years of her mercurial success, Brown shared a studio with the artist, Sean Landers, with whom she also had an intimate relationship. The studio was her safe haven, while the grid of the city was like her refuge. Brown spent as much time as possible in the studio painting almost obsessively and still felt dissatisfied with her productivity. She admitted that, during her early years in New York as a young, up-and-coming artist she drank heavily and partied often, and in some ways welcomed a life of drama and intensity. One of the most dramatic episodes in her life occurred in 2000, when her boyfriend, the artist Russell Haswell, attempted to slit her throat during a particularly heated quarrel and then jumped out the apartment window in an attempt at suicide. The attempt failed and the two parted ways. In retrospect, Brown blamed the myth of the tormented genius artist and the lifestyle that seems to demand that an artist moves between the worlds of the almost manic decadence of New York City and art world life and the rigorous self-discipline of the studio.
Brown's style has evolved over time. Her early focus on highly charged sexual themes, with the heavily impastoed canvases of roiling figures was expanded through the years to incorporate more diverse subject matter. Sexual themes are tempered so that there is a subtlety or even vagueness to her work, which the artist says now features a myriad of topics -- "life, death, and the kitchen sink." In May 2015, Brown left the Gagosian gallery after 15 years to the tremendous surprise of the art world. Her more recent work is smaller in scale, with some paintings no more than 17 inches tall. She married architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff and they have a daughter named Ella.
In 2015, her work was at the center of a debate concerning art and appropriation when it was observed that the work of artist, Sherie' Franssen, looked uncannily like that of Brown. The debate featured equal measures of amusement and vitriol on the part of Brown supporters and Brown herself declared that Franssen was little more than a copyist, an assertion that seems a little problematic coming from an artist who made no secret of appropriating themes and styles from past artists.
Brown's career has been the subject of controversy for many reasons. When her work is compared to that of De Kooning, for instance, she's characterized as a kind of "feminist" counterpart to the infamous Ab Ex painter who often portrayed women as hideous monsters. However, critics contend that there is nothing particularly overtly feminist about Brown's work, which New York Times art critic, Roberta Smith, has referred to as "lackluster" and bereft of "necessity."
The Legacy of Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown's emergence as a female artist capable of challenging the gendered status quo not only of the art world but of what many regard as the hyper-masculinity of the Abstract Expressionist movement is perhaps her most lasting contribution. The rhetoric that has traditionally been applied to reinforce concepts of both a feminine style of painting and feminine subject matter, while not completely absent from critiques of Brown's vigorous, unrelenting style and unapologetic themes, stands out as ridiculously anachronistic at the least. The artist's feminism is not and never has been a cudgel but, rather, a brush with which she asserts her skill, energy, and intellect in work that is not especially directly feminist in terms of subject matter but demands its rightful place in the art world and in the larger world where the gender binary is under constant challenge.