"I like the Cheap and Nasty"
2005: The Observer ~ Gaby Wood | Cecily Brown Articles
When Cecily Brown opens the door to her huge, skylit studio in the meatpacking district of Manhattan, I think I won't know where to stand or look. The floor is covered in a peculiar blend of detritus: discarded wads of paint-stained paper towels, a Balenciaga shopping bag, a yoga mat, cigarette butts, a stray Helmut Lang sandal. In the middle of the room, there is an enormous work table on wheels, crammed with paints. Long sable brushes are kept in coffee cans. Gargantuan paintings lean on easels and on every stretch of wall.
Cecily Brown has been in this space for five years, half the time she has been in New York. Since she arrived here from London, the area has changed so much that her windows now look out on to new Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen boutiques. Something not dissimilar has happened to her career. 'When I moved to New York,' she says, 'I was waiting tables, painting in the daytime and working at night, and I felt it was possible to find a balance and just about get by. I was 25 at the time. I thought, "Well, you just do it however you can." I had no clue that it would go as well as it has.'
Now she is represented by the Gagosian, the most prestigious private gallery in the world. She has works in Tate Modern and the Guggenheim, is collected by Charles Saatchi, Elton John and Michael Ovitz. Each painting sells for around £70,000 and there is always a waiting list. Later this month, her first major retrospective will open at Modern Art Oxford.
Ever since her show here last January, though, she says she has been stuck. She has been painting every day, but it feels like it's all 'carpentry' and very little magic. 'I never get suicidal about it, but I get very low,' she tells me. 'After each show, I think, "That was the last decent painting I'll make", "It's all over" and "Think of all those people who do their best work in their thirties!" I try and remind myself that it will pass and that I'm a drama queen.'
She doesn't seem much like one today. Brown is small, purposeful and not the least bit fragile, though her features are almost doll-like. Nothing about her seems to try too hard. She introduces each of her paintings without formality, as if it were a living companion, leaning against its upper edges or stroking a particular section with an anatomist's finesse.
Brown became famous for restoring a certain sensuality to painting. Her early works, such as those in 'The Skin Game', her first show at the Gagosian, were erotic, both in that they depicted sexual acts and in the way the consistency of the paint evoked such human textures.
'I think when I was doing a lot of sexual paintings,' she remembers, 'what I wanted - in a way that I think now is too literal - was for the paint to embody the same sensations that bodies would. Oil paint very easily suggests bodily fluids and flesh.'
But her images were too broken down to be pornographic. Her more recent Black Paintings, for example, clearly contain a naked figure, but they are more like hallucinations than depictions. 'I've been trying to get away from always having couples and sex,' she says. Ideally, she would like to produce an oeuvre that is not too coherent; though she thinks every painter has a mark that is instinctive, 'like the sound of your voice', she tries to push herself so that no one can say she paints a certain way.
To this end, Brown works on up to 20 paintings at once. When I visit the studio, two 'big messy things', as she calls her abstract paintings, are facing each other. On another wall, there are works in progress she refers to as 'office paintings' - red interiors, like furious Vuillards, that wrong-foot you as you look. By the door is an almost-monochrome oil based on a Victorian picture puzzle - little girls whose forms make up a skull - which is smeared and scrambled until it is unrecognisable except as a gut-felt memento mori.
All of Brown's paintings are unresolvable puzzles of some kind. Her marks can be gnarled and vicious, ghostly or gloomy, or they can be elegiac, arrestingly sweet, precise. 'I've always wanted to have a lot of different ways of saying something, maybe sometimes to the detriment of the paintings,' Brown says, 'so that you might have a veil of paint that suggests some very delicate skin, but then I'll want something very meaty and clogged next to it.' When painter John Currin called Brown's paintings 'promiscuous', he didn't just mean they were about sex; he meant they could exist in all these worlds, flitting between possibilities.
We decide to have lunch at a trendy diner around the corner which is the local haunt of Spike Lee, among others. It has been a busy few weeks - Damien Hirst's new show opened at the Gagosian; Gary Hume had an opening, as did Richard Prince, and 'the whole world' was here for auction week. Brown says she has been to so many dinners that she is 'all talked out'.
When she came here, the only people she knew were the other waitresses in the bar she worked in. She had left England partly because the art world was so dominated by the installations and spectacles of the YBAs. She thought she would stand a better chance in New York, and she was right. 'In a way, it was nice to stand alone as a painter,' Brown tells me. 'Now there's so much bloody painting around, I feel I'm fashionable by default.'
Not long after she arrived, the SoHo art tsar Jeffrey Deitch saw her work and made her the first painter he had ever shown. Two years after that, she was picked up by Larry Gagosian, and became a new kind of rock'n'roll darling, complete with profiles in Vogue and Vanity Fair. There was even a Warholesque drama. During a party at her apartment five years ago, Brown's then-boyfriend, Russell Haswell, tried to slit his throat and then jumped out of the window. (The suicide attempt was unsuccessful; Haswell is still working as an artist; Brown is currently single, contrary to recent reports.)
Although in London she thought she had nothing in common with her contemporaries, she now thinks they share a certain sensibility. She and Sarah Lucas, she says, are both interested in 'abject ideas about the body, the cheap and nasty', even if the approach is completely different.
'Sarah, Damien, the Chapmans - I was always very fascinated by their subjects - you know, basic sex and death type things, a certain violence, the violence of everyday life. My theory is that most of them come from a kind of marriage of Francis Bacon and Gilbert and George. And even going further back, to Hogarth, a sort of satire.'
One of the things that is striking both about Brown's work and the way she talks about it is that she seems surprisingly free of the anxiety of influence. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that she is the daughter of Shena Mackay, the Booker-shortlisted novelist, and the late David Sylvester, one of Britain's leading art critics, who is sometimes referred to as Bacon's Boswell.
'It sounds disingenuous,' Brown explains, 'but I don't really think of the art of the past as distant. If you go into a museum, it's there today. One of the things I love is the freedom of having all these artists in your head side by side; you might find yourself thinking of Jeff Koons one minute and Giotto the next.'
Many artists won't allow their work to be mentioned in the same breath as anyone else's, but Brown routinely confesses to 'stealing' from Goya or Velázquez. 'I think the desire to be new is just as bad as the desire to be fashionable,' she says. 'It's a losing game.'
She first saw Francis Bacon's paintings in the flesh in 1985, when David Sylvester took her to see them at the Tate. She had seen his work in print; her mother, who also knew Bacon, had edited a book of interviews with him that Sylvester had conducted.In among all the fiction and poetry in the house, there were these books Brown remembers thinking were 'for grown-ups only'. Bacon became her favourite artist.
Three years later, she met him in person. Sylvester was taking Bacon to see a show of 20th-century Italian art at the Royal Academy after hours (he always engineered this special privilege) and suggested Brown come with them. It was the day she heard she had got into the Slade School of Art, and she was 'so starstruck I could barely open my mouth'. 'Every time we'd cross paths in the gallery, Bacon would look at something and say, "Doesn't really work, does it?" He didn't think anything worked.'
On neither of these occasions did Brown know that Sylvester was her father. She had grown up thinking that her mother's husband, Robin Brown, was her father and that Sylvester was a family friend. But Mackay and Sylvester had rekindled an old affair, the product of which was Cecily.
She is close to her family, but once she knew she wanted to be a painter, she and Sylvester started going to more exhibitions together and she began to refer to him as her best friend. This made him uncomfortable, so he and Mackay went to see an analyst for advice and told Cecily the truth when she was 21. Sylvester, who died four years ago, once said in an interview: 'I do most things wrong in my life but with regard to the timing of telling Cecily I think I did quite well.'
If they were close before, what difference did knowing he was her father actually make? 'Well,' says Brown, 'we got much closer. He always joked, "You were much nicer to me before you knew I was your father!"'
Brown was brought up in a literary family and she credits her mother with inspiring her early on to plug away at a career that might not necessarily earn her a living. All through her daughter's childhood, Shena Mackay took other jobs so she could write. But when Brown found out she was related to Sylvester: 'It made so much sense that I just thought, "Oh, that's where it comes from." The family liked art, but not to the degree that I did, and he loved art more than anything else.' She suspects there is something to genetics, though if she had been brought up with a background in art, she would have fought against it. 'I think I really might have tried to do something else if I'd known. But by the time David told me, I was at the Slade - it was too late.'
As we talk, there is the crashing, creaking sound of trucks on cobblestones, delivering carcasses to the warehouse. A faint breeze prevents Brown from lighting a cigarette. She casually pulls open the neck of her T-shirt and lights it close to her chest. She thinks she will stay in New York for good, she says. She gets 'very stressed' about leaving the city even for a few days, and finds the grid of Manhattan 'so reassuring'. She hates to leave the studio.
At the moment, she shares a floor with fellow artist Sean Landers, and they think they might join forces with John Currin and look for somewhere else; she would like to live and work in the same space. Even though her friends tell her she works too hard, she misses getting up and drawing in her pyjamas, and she never feels she is doing enough.
That's not to say Brown is immune to a good time. 'You know, I like partying and I drink quite a lot. It's quite dangerous, the myth of the artist, because it's almost expected sometimes that you're going to be a drunk and live hard, but when you do... the thing I always remembered about Bacon was that he'd say in interviews, "However drunk I was the night before, I'm still in my studio working by nine in the morning."'
The only other career she might consider, she says jokingly, is as a singer in a rock'n'roll band. 'I'm a real exhibitionist,' she smiles. 'I did karaoke for my birthday the other night and I thought it was the best thing to do on my birthday because I'd be able to hog the mike! Obviously, I had to let a few other people have a go, but I was on it for about three or four hours.' She thinks about it and bursts out laughing. 'I did think at moments the other night, "God, have I missed my calling?"'