It takes courage for an artist to leave a powerful, multi-national gallery like Gagosian, particularly after 15 years during which your star has risen from a talented 29-year-old unknown to an established name.
But, the British painter Cecily Brown has done just that, departing Gagosian in April last year to join the smaller but respected London gallery Thomas Dane last summer. On 10 June, the gallery opened their first show of Brown’s paintings and drawings, 'Cecily Brown: Madrepora'. Brown has lived and worked in New York since she moved there as a 26-year-old, a devoted painter escaping the conceptual focus of London’s YBA’s in the mid-1990s.
Although still happily settled in Manhattan, as she smiles proudly around the gallery as final touches are applied the day before the opening, it's hard not to see that this is a homecoming show.
Brown clearly revels in the sheer handling of paint and, through its many, reworked layers, has a restless virility. The body remains central and fleshy forms slowly reveal themselves out of the many layers. There’s a strong sense of narrative too, although the precise subject often remains elusive, more a memory of her original inspiration.
The show takes over both of the gallery’s spaces on Duke Street, each room mixing recent works with older paintings and drawings from the past two decades, kept by the artist. As gallery director François Chantala observes, although Brown’s work is 'constantly shifting,' the layers becoming 'more translucent and the palette more muted' in recent paintings. They’re united by a handful of recurrent themes such as the body, heaven and hell, and draw repeatedly on art historical references. Brown’s admiration of Rembrandt, of French 18th-century painters and Velázquez and Goya, to name a few, touches many.
It’s a rare treat to see Brown’s drawings hung alongside the paintings. These deft delicate ink sketches, often studies of Old Master paintings, are rarely shown and, far from playing second fiddle to the paintings, they’re one of the highlights of the show. Brown’s skill as a draughtsman is about to gain further recognition with a solo exhibition titled 'Rehearsal' opening this October at New York’s Drawing Center.
With the move to Thomas Dane, Brown has spoken of her wish to 'recontextualise' her work as she enters another stage of her career and the intimacy of the two spaces, the collaborative process of putting together the exhibition, does just that.