Published date: 15 Sep 2011
You could say that art history is a game of visual Chinese whispers, in which images are constantly repeated but the meaning constantly shifts. Takethe following example: in 1973, Frank Auerbach painted a portrait he called Head of J.Y.M. It was of Juliet Yardley Mills, who was the painter's main model from the early sixties. Although Head of J.Y.M. 1973 is one of a sequence of pictures, it is exceptional in what one might call its art historical afterlife. It became the subject of obsession for another painter, Glenn Brown, who created a series of works modeled around the earlier piece. In its way, Brown's revisiting of Auerbach's work is as representative of its era – the 1990s and early 21st century – as Auerbach's depiction of J.Y.M was of the post-war zeitgeist. Just as Auerbach (b. 1931) is one of the major figures of his generation, so Brown (b. 1966) is recognized as one of the more important painters of recent decades (he has had exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in 2004 and Tate Liverpool in 2009). However, the two artists explore very different territory.
Auerbach's creative endeavor has always been a desperate struggle to transmit his experience of a person or a place in a way that is fresh and new – the energy and speed of his brush strokes are an index of that battle. Brown, on the other hand, is exploring territory that might be dubbed 'postmodernist Gothic'. His starting point is often a pre-existing image from art or popular culture, within which he finds a novel landscape: bleak and unsettling. As Dr Christoph Grunenberg, former Director of Tate Liverpool, puts it, "Brown's subjects are all in various stages of decay, an atmosphere of nauseating disintegration emanating from rancid surfaces and putrid colors. They display the classic characteristics of abject horror, which, at its heart, is ambiguous."
The first of Brown's seven recycled versions of Auerbach's painting came in 1991. Brown, who was then studying in London at Goldsmiths College, called it Atom Age Vampire, a reference to an Italian film about a woman whose appearance is altered after a car crash. This was followed by other pictures by Brown derived from the same Auerbach painting: KinderTransport (1999), New Dawn Fades, The Marquess of Breadalbane, Kill the Poor, The Real Thing and the painting to be offered at Bonhams, Little Death (all from 2000). One of the striking points about this group is that, though all of the works are visibly related to Auerbach's original, they are all different, in color, composition, backdrop, and even the shape of the support (The Marquess of Breadalbane is a baroque oval). The tilt of J.Y.M.'s head morphs from picture to picture, as does the colourway in which she is painted; in New Dawn Fades, the figure is made up of blue and green brush strokes, whilst in Kinder Transport it is marbled purple-yellow ones. In Little Death, however, J.Y.M is silhouetted against distant mountains and airy sky, quite unlike the solid wall of paint in the Auerbach. The effect is reminiscent of the most famous portrait of all, the Mona Lisa.
In a discussion about Little Death, the critic Richard Cork wrote, "the airy blueness above invades her hair with sudden, unexpected brutality. Mouth parted, she seems beleaguered and startled. Although Brown's title is taken from the term for orgasm, she looks aghast." But the most disconcerting aspect of the picture, one that it has in common with all Brown's work, is the way in which it is painted.
The original Auerbach was made with slashing paint-marks, lasting evidence of the artist's presence and engagement. Brown's Little Death, on the other hand, is executed in absolutely smooth pigment that mimics Auerbach's juicy impasto; in an almost mocking way, the empathic roughness of the original is replaced with a glossy sense of the impersonal. The way Brown works is exquisitely perverse. With the finest of brushes, and immense skill, he produces the effect of a reproduction on paper or a computer screen. Indeed, this triggers part of the viewer's response. It is hard to believe one is actually looking at a hand-painted surface. In fact, Brown is using a method – ultra smooth oil on panel – that is older than Auerbach's. This is the way that Jan van Eyck made pictures. In other respects, Brown's approach is highly contemporary.
"For a long time the starting point for adapting an image has been the computer," he told the curator and critic, Laurence Sillars. He uses Photoshop to warp, stretch and play around with the picture that serves as his starting point. Before he did this on a screen, he employed photocopiers and laser printers to carry out a similar process. Both techniques saw him dealing with slightly tacky, virtual images.
In the case of the Auerbach, he has said, the reproduction was so blurred that "it allowed me room to stretch, tilt and alter the composition and color in seeming infinite ways". He is fascinated by the way in which the mood and meaning of the original picture can also vary as a result. "By repeating a subject you are asking people to consider what has changed," he said to Sillars, "from heroic to dumb and then to melancholic, all because I have changed my perception and palette." In a way Brown's work is all about the impossibility of originality. "I have no option other than to appropriate or transpose the images that the world has thrown at me." Brown could, he mused, pretend that isn't so. Instead, he prefers to "make a great big fat point of it, as for some reason people have such a fascinatingly hard time admitting how unoriginal they really are".
The paradox is, of course, that Brown is, in fact, highly innovative. Increasingly, there has appeared in his work what can only be described as an individual imagination. Admittedly, this operates in the arid, airless zone of images that have been reprinted, photocopied or projected onto a screen. In these, however, Brown finds a sort of post-mortem meaning. The thick impasto that is used as a metaphor for flesh by Auerbach – and other painterly painters whose work Brown has reused, including Rembrandt, Baselitz and Asger Jorn – becomes ghastly decay and decomposition.
The result is a contradictory mixture of high art and kitsch, irony and Grand Guignol, craftsmanship in loving imitation. "I hope," Brown says, "it is not cold, but full of humor and dark wet places that are very internal."
Martin Gayford is a writer and art critic. His latest book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, will be published by Thames & Hudson in October.
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