Glenn Brown - Biography and Legacy
Hexham, Northumberland, UK
Biography of Glenn Brown
Glenn Brown was born in 1966 in Hexham, Northumberland, in the north of England. He has described the importance of religious iconography to his early visual development - "It's what surrounded me when I was growing up" he said - and particularly the grandiose, often violently shocking, subject matter. But as Brown's artistic interests developed into adolescence, it was the self-aware language of postmodernism that attracted him. Speaking of artists like Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Richard Prince, he picked up on the "emotional detachment, the cool gaze of the detached artist" and the fact that the audience "never quite know what [the artists are] thinking. It's about the way technology has detached us from the direct relationship with the real world" he concluded.
Early Training and Work
Brown began his formal training with a Foundation Course at Norwich School of Art & Design, before earning his BA in Fine Art from Bath School of Art. In the early 1990s he moved to London to study at Goldsmith's College of Art, not long after key members of the Young British Artists (YBA) group, including Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, had graduated from the college; "I was very aware of them and what they had done", he recalled. Like his predecessors, Brown was taught by the influential tutor Michael Craig-Martin, now world famous for having steered the YBAs towards the path of international success. Craig-Martin's focus as a teacher was less on specific skills and more on developing a certain way of thinking about art, as Brown put it, "Painting wasn't taught. Philosophy was taught. I realised you couldn't do anything original - because if you did something that had not been done before, it would not be understandable".
Brown took up the challenge of "being original" by devoting his energies to painting; a medium that seemed on the brink of death in the 1990s: "That always felt very much an issue when I was at college. What you paint, how you paint, painting is dead, this is the last dying throes of painting" Brown recalled. The postmodern language of appropriation, as practiced by the likes of the Pictures Generation made a special impact on him. Inspired by the writings of the French philosopher Roland Barthes, the Pictures Generation, named after a 1977 exhibition in at the Artist's Space in New York, was a loose-knit of artists, including Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, who interrogated (amongst other things) by way of image deconstruction, the idea of mass consumerism and artistic originality.
One of the first paintings Brown made while still at Goldsmiths was Atom Age Vampire in 1991, one of many pieces that copied the work of British Expressionist Frank Auerbach. Drawing on digital reproductions of the original paintings, Brown reduced the raised surface of the Auerbach originals, transforming them into glossy, flattened imitations. Gradually, the work of other painters was filtered through Brown's digital lens, including Karel Appel, Willem de Kooning, and Chaim Soutine. Brown insisted that his fascination with expressionist art was sincere - "I want to be Soutine, I want to be de Kooning, slashing away at the canvas" - but expressionism had been met with scorn by the postmodernists: "I fetishize the brush mark, and treat them like objects to be gazed at in awe [but eventually only] to be mocked" Brown confessed.
Following graduation, Brown followed the lead of many of his peers when he set up studio in the neglected area of Shoreditch; an area of East London where abandoned factories, squats and run-down shops were occupied by aspiring artists and gallerists. Brown's inclusion in exhibitions promoted under the banner of YBA, including the iconic Sensation at London's Royal Academy in 1997, tied him to that movement, though the artist himself had sought to put some space between himself and the YBAs. In Brown's view, his determination to paint distanced him from the installation-heavy art of the most prominent YBAs, namely Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marc Quinn, and Jake and Dinos Chapman. Yet he became part of a painterly component of the movement that embraced artists including Gary Hume, Fiona Rae, Jenny Saville, and Chris Ofili all of whom adopted new conceptual approaches to "old fashioned" art of painting.
In the mid-1990s, Brown, intent on "playing" with found images through which he could produce the "sense of the gothic", created a series of paintings based on science fiction illustrations from the 1970s and 1980s. Drawing on the kitsch book-cover art by the likes of Antony Roberts and Chris Foss, Brown reproduced their illustrations on a sublime scale. But rather than simply copy the original works, Brown shifted the image to include panoramic vistas with areas of painstakingly rendered, photorealistic, detail. Nevertheless, Roberts had been so incensed by Brown's paintings he commenced legal proceedings against him. The case was settled out of court, though the fallout brought on a raft of personal issues for Brown who recalled, "[the legal battle] was not amusing at the time. For two years afterwards it was very miserable. It was an extraordinarily expensive thing. I had just bought a house and I nearly lost it because of it."
Brown's art brought him widespread recognition following his Turner Prize nomination in 2000. Not all the attention he received was positive however. Some took offence at his methods with The Times newspaper accusing him of blatant plagiarism. Leaping to Brown's defence, Chairman of the Turner Prize, Sir Nicholas Serota argued vehemently for the legitimacy of Brown's practice: "I would argue that it's not a piece of plagiarism [...] Brown has frequently used the work of other artists in developing his own work, but that is true of Picasso, who borrowed from Rembrandt [...] this is not new. Glenn Brown is a remarkable painter and artist [...] he takes the image, he transforms it [it is] completely different".
Moving into the new millennium, Brown's practice started to move in less derivative, directions. His new phase was, in part, a reaction to a review written by Jonathan Jones of The Guardian. As Brown explained: "In 2000 I did a show and he wrote that I was holding something back. He said, 'There needs to be a larger Glenn.' And he was right. So, I became more, in the word he used in the review, 'carnivalesque'". Brown cited the painting International Velvet (2004), a piece inspired by Georg Baselitz, as the moment when his art truly "came of age". The original reference to Baselitz was in the end all-but abandoned in a creative process that would effectively obliterate any reference to Baselitz's original(s).
The decadent language of the grotesque has become most pronounced in Brown's more recent, larger-scale paintings, which combine the precision of his earlier works with a looser, freer handling of paint. His subject matter embraces the extremes, including grossly distorted figuration, religious references and living things on the brink of decay, painted in deliberately jarring, unsettling colors, in a language influenced by the extremities of Mannerism. Direct references to art historical sources are often more oblique, allowing Brown to stake a greater claim on authenticity. The later paintings also open up room for expanded interpretations, as Brown himself explained, "... it is better to encourage the viewer to do as much work as possible. Leave a few gaps and the human brain quickly tries to fill them, and make sense of what it sees".
Reflecting recently on the room for personal growth and development Brown commented, "[some] artists ... as they get older ... get more energetic and more complex and richer in the way they ... work. And you want to be one of those artists". Latterly embracing drawing and sculpture, Brown has expanded his repertoire, delving into the language of art history and its disturbing relationship with the human psyche. Brown was awarded a CBE for his services to the arts, while he continues to work in a studio in the Shoreditch area of London.
The Legacy of Glenn Brown
The legacy of appropriation, so effectively exploited by Brown through the "moribund" medium of painting, continues to exert its influence over a number of contemporary artists. British artist Neil Gall's meticulous, precise language of drawing, painting, and sculpture appropriates discarded ephemera such as postcards and litter, to produce excessive works of Baroque (over) indulgence. Like Brown, his detailed surfaces and clashing colour combinations play with the borders between beauty and kitsch. Likewise, William Daniels has created photorealist paintings construed of "visual rubble" to create fantastical realities in which torn scraps of paper become charging knights and crumpled foil forms kaleidoscopic patterns of color and light. Dexter Dalwood, meanwhile, creates complex narratives out of pre-existing, printed material through a process of re-painting. Mirroring the same language of quotation as Brown, familiar fragments of buildings, interiors and landscapes are torn from magazine pages and re-painted in an attempt to recreate the prismatic experience of living in the 21st century.