Copyist for life
Some notes on Glenn Brown

Issue no5
October - November 2016
Materiaalverhalen

Perhaps the snappiest comment on Glenn Brown ever was the caption to a portrait photo of him in The Times: ‘Glenn Brown: boldly going where another has gone before.’ The accompanying review was by Dalya Alberge, but the caption was probably dreamt up in seconds by a sub-editor.

When I report this wisecrack to Brown - to all appearances he never read this review - he laughs. ‘When they’re that good, there’s no reason to complain,’ he says. The point of the joke, just in case you’re baffled, is its allusion to Star Trek, episodes of which always bore the strapline, ‘boldly going where no one has gone before,’ and the bigger point is the attempt to neatly sum up Brown’s art: his copying other artists’ paintings, and his (then) predeliction for the work of science-fiction illustrators. The particular case in point was Brown’s ‘The Loves of Shepherds’ which was his version of Anthony Roberts’ illustration for the cover of ‘Doublestar’ by Robert A Heinlein. Roberts decided to sue, and the legal battle cost Brown £140,000. ‘Every penny I had,’ he says, that is, all the money he had earnt from other paintings.

The irony is that apparently the other artist made very little out of the legal action: most of the money went to the lawyers. The other unfortunate thing is that it has made Brown wary of embarking on more appropriations of sci-fi artists’ works.

He can of course turn other artists’ paintings into sci-fi. When Brown reworked John Martin’s ‘The Great Day of his Wrath,’ he turned it sideways and stretched it, and in this way sent the fantastic landscape into outer space, so that it floats rather than erupts: the city plunging into the abyss atop a wave of rock becomes a space settlement.

On the ‘boldly going’ caption, and reviews of his work in general, Brown further comments, ‘I don’t mind what people write, I’m actually more interested in whether or not it’s well-written.’ This endears me to him, and seems to say something about his own work. Aside from the facts of his subject matter, or source material, and his attraction to certain motifs, the glaringly obvious thing about his work is its virtuosity. And without that - frankly weird - technique, there is no Glenn Brown. Writer Joanna Pitman remarks that Brown’s is a case of ‘choosing the path of most resistance and sticking to it bloody-mindedly’

As I understand it, Brown’s technique is as follows. He scans a picture from a book, magazine or postcard into his computer. This he changes using photoshop. He may flip it sideways, or upside down, and he may stretch it. I am still unclear about the extent to which he changes the colours at this point. He prints out the resulting image. Using an overhead projector or an epidiascope - which throws an enlarged image from printed material onto any surface - he casts the image onto canvas and makes a detailed drawing. Then he paints, freehand, with small brushes. He uses glazes. For the colours, he makes continual reference to another artist’s work, as represented, again, in a reproduction. Sometimes he will refer to more than one painting. Sometimes he will just make the colours up himself.

Recently he has been relying a lot on the paintings of Kirchner. ‘In German Expressionist paintings it’s vulgarity and nastiness for its own sake. It was like a competition to see who could be the nastiest and most vulgar.’ Such things appeal to him. Finally he applies a coat of varnish, which gives the painting its smooth finish, its look of being itself a reproduction.

He also says, ‘I can’t paint without a mirror in the studio’ - to keep checking that the composition and the colours are working out as he wants them.

As far as I know, not much has been written on Brown’s Gothic tendencies. His paintings are ‘haunted by ghosts,’ Marina Benjamin has written, and Brown has agreed. He is a bit like a figure wandering in the corridors of art history. Much has been written about the ‘postmodern’ aspects of the work, about the relations between Brown and the paintings he copies. Stuart Morgan wrote in 1994 that not much was clear about Brown’s intentions, and strangely, this may still be true. ‘One thing is clear,’ Morgan writes, ‘the role not of taste, (goût), but of distaste (dégoût) a deeply felt obsession with the grotesque and its possibilities…’

It is significant that Brown says of his early Ben Nicholson relief paintings, that ‘they were too abstract and too conceptual and too dead’

He says, ‘my paintings are mostly quite morbid and deathly...there’s an element of vampirism...I like black comedy...I like to paint people as if decaying or flayed.’ He speaks of ‘a state between life and death.’ And says, ‘I intend people to be entertained by the strange colours and the psychological twistedness of it all.’ Much as they might with a Gothic movie. He has also said that he would like to make a painting which was like a Joy Division song.

All of which is very colourful. Incidentally, Thierry de Duve says that Manet’s painting of the deposition of Christ marks the beginning of Modernism precisely because it depicts a state between life and death.

But we can say more. Robert Harbison, in ‘Eccentric Spaces’, writes that ‘Gothic is a response to a newly alien Nature without God, where we feel an exited uncertainty of what to inform it with, since we cannot assume its sympathy.’ Which works as a good description of how Science fiction took up the flag of Gothic. And possibly as an explanation of Brown’s attraction to certain kinds of sci-fi imagery. The loneliness of sci-fi draws inspiration from the loneliness of Gothic.

In Gothic, Harbison says, referring in particular to Poe, ‘the feelings are boiled down to a kind of architecture.’ ‘A deserted world or ruin is the most egoistical piece of imagining possible,’ says Harbison, ‘the world left behind for the self alone.’ When Brown titled a painting of a science fiction landscape ‘Böcklin’s Tomb’ he made the easy connection between Böcklin’s ‘The Isle of the Dead’ and an image of cities floating in space. And in this connection, and with hindsight, it seems interesting that his early paintings were of Auerbach portraits, which are essentially lonely in character - and that Brown has commented that what he was doing was trying to paint the portraits of those people, not just subverting Auerbach’s Modernist impasto.

And yet, to return to the painting of paintings, it is possible at the same time to make the following connection: Harbison, still on the subject of the Gothic, says of Henry James, that his stories are ‘not just imaginary lives but imaginary fictions, whose subject is narration not experience.’ They are stories about stories, in other words. This surely finds an echo in Brown, whatever his intentions.

Parodies of Gothic show the mind regaining control,’ Harbison says. In genuine Gothic ‘consciousness is recognised as a trap.’ This is most obvious in Poe, then later, Kafka.And: ‘the real reason for calling Gothic a non-progressive exercise of pure setting is that the fears of intrusion on the self are not exorcised but only manipulated.’

Brown’s recent works have been portraits. Moreover he is now creating his own characters out of his materials - other artists’ paintings. He is manipulating not only their way of painting, but their portrait images, the faces in their pictures. He is intruding on these fictional selves. And at the same time, it is interesting that he is interested in the real people behind all this – that is, the people portrayed – even if only by default.

The Stuart Morgan article (Frieze 13) is, like much of Morgan’s writing, a curious document. Intelligent, ambiguous, a little infuriating. At times he seems to rate Brown very highly, at others he is acidic. And whether what he wrote was prescient, or whether he simply had an axe to grind, it is hard to say. ‘In Brown’s Musée imaginaire every new acquisition modifies the meaning of the last, just as Brown’s retitlings alter the interpretation of the original. The rationale behind the moves in Brown’s game remain unclear.’

‘Brown has struggled so hard to make the grotesque banal and therefore harmless, that it comes as no surprise to learn that he is now working on a version of an Arcimboldo.’ But: ‘…paradoxically, it is this banality with which Brown does battle.
‘third rate van Gogh’ he calls Auerbach, while Appel is dismissed as ‘consciously mock-naïve’.’ ‘Brown’s argument seems to be that Auerbach and Appel…are no more than sanctified yobs…’ ‘Unfortunately his version of a chimpanzee painting remains unfinished.’ ‘ ‘I’m never interested in what the real thing is’, he has observed.’ I am bound to say, about this last quotation in particular, that this was not the impression I got of Brown at all, from the two hours I spent with him in his studio.

Did Brown really say these things? In what context? It’s a long way from this to the catalogue of the current show, in which Brown speaks of Auerbach thus: ‘I adore his paintings, their strange sense of colour and their beguiling sense of fluidity, but the reproductions that are my starting point fail to capture the excitement and detail that I get from standing directly in front of an original.’

When that coat of varnish is finally applied, Morgan says ‘the argument against fetishising paint is clinched’. Which seems pretty clear.

What we can say however is that the stance Morgan took in 1993 was possible then and perhaps seemed the obvious one. It doesn’t seem possible now - even given the obvious subversive charge in what Brown does to Auerbach and others, the almost shock effect his paintings first have on you. This is an interesting area. What happened? Did Brown’s paintings change? Did his explanation of himself change? Well, this is for sure, and the changes can be traced by reading the many interviews. Is there anything wrong with any of this? Did we change? Did the atmosphere around him change – this too is certain. Did Brown move with fashion? There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

Morgan remarks about Brown doing Dali: ‘for the first time it seems that Brown as critic is at least preparing to enter into the spirit of the work in question instead of merely documenting it and leaving it to speak for itself…’ But perhaps there is something in this. When Brown did sci-fi – Chris Foss, for example – he showed an enthusiasm for something, and enthusiasm wasn’t very fashionable when Brown was at college. It is absurd to call Chris Foss’s paintings naïve – they are what they are, and have their own excellence. Perhaps to copy them is even more naïve. Foss complained that what Brown had done was take the passion out of his paintings. This is indisputable in one sense, and to admirers of Brown’s paintings is assumed to be part of the point. So, all in all, the question is still open, as to what exactly Brown is
up to. Brown: ‘I like things to be as ambiguous as possible.’

For me, the best comments on Brown are by Dana Friis Hansen in Abstract Painting Once Removed, 1998:‘Brown is not interested in painting, photographic reproductions, or sculpture per se, but instead seems more interested in the in-between states of being, the fallout when a real object is translated from one form to another.’ This strikes me as an intelligent observation.

And it brings together the two sides of Brown: the ‘postmodern’, ‘coolschool’ Brown and the Gothic Brown, who is also the ‘enthusiastic’ art-lover.

But let us sew these things together slowly and carefully. It is interesting that even she assumes without question that what Brown does with his sources is a ‘betrayal’ of kinds. And yet, the quotations from Brown she uses to show this also convey a more complex approach on his part.

‘Brown describes the betrayal: ‘The subject, the figure, became helpless, displaced and lost between Auerbach’s interpretation, the photograph, the printed page, and my interpretation. As portraits, [my Auerbach works] represent a hopelessly schizophrenic state, with no single author, so the artist’s model is viewed from no one perspective.’‘This serves to reinforce her talk of ‘in-between states’ and
‘translation’ (quite Gothic concepts, both, I would like to add.)

Let me quote her once more: Not only does Brown drain the impastoed paint of its passion, he also refocuses the portrait; using shallow photographic space, he seems to make ‘paintings of people in paint rather than a portrait of a painting.

I play around with what would be the focal length, so the head is in focus and the background is not. Returning the subject to its original perspective, the head gets some depth.’ ‘Here, once again, both Browns are present: the ‘destructive,’ Brown,
Brown the art-critic if you like, and the other Brown – represented here as a portrait-painter (and one who perhaps, in the final analysis, loves Frank Auerbach.)

3.

What else can I tell you?

That Brown has put the colours of an Edwin Frederic Church painting onto a John Martin. That ‘Death Disco’ puts van Gogh colours onto a stretched version of Rembrandt’s ‘Flora’. That ‘Sex’ is van Dyck with Picasso blue period colours - ‘and me’ – meaning Brown’s own choice of colours. ‘I like pushing the absurdity level of the colours as far as they will go,’ he says. ‘I seem to have become obsessed with making colours as vulgar as possible.’ ‘Dark Star’ is a Rembrandt portrait of Saskia with a John Currin composition imposed on it and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner colours.Some of the new paintings clearly reference Arcimboldo, without explicitly ‘copying’ that artist. ‘I had Arcimboldo in my mind for a long time,’ Brown says. ‘But I make it out of paint, not fish.’

Recent paintings are getting more and more complicated in their references. Brown seems to be moving toward a new kind of artistic voice. He is more himself, perhaps, more free. Brown: ‘Good art was mostly about being questioning and unbalancing things. and I think the questioning is for its own sake. I think that’s what Fragonard and Auerbach and Picasso do as well. Of course we don’t know who we are and are trying to represent what we are. That’s why we dream. We feel constantly destabilised. Our brains are constantly solving puzzles.’

Brown’s ‘Auerbachs’ look if anything even more serious now than when they were painted, and perhaps this is because Brown put into them more ambiguity even than he himself realized. This alone shows what a good painter he is. There are many other things which do the same. Playing Devil’s advocate a little, I ask if he will ever make his ‘own’ paintings, making them up from his imagination (given, of course, that anyone’s imagination contains a store of received images). Does he not feel tempted now to do something more ‘free-spirited’. Or could he not, even, copy some artist’s particular way of going into a landscape and painting it, for example? ‘No, I will never do that. Those [free-spirited] things are in the way I do it. What am I supposed to paint that’s absolutely me? I’ve no idea….and I think if I was making something up from my imagination people would find that quite meaningless.’ Nevertheless, I don’t see why Brown should feel entirely bound by his own words. He could, in some unforeseen way, change his mind. Not that I am saying he should, of course. But we are now moving into an atmosphere in which ‘making up their own paintings’ seems to be, roughly speaking, the direction in which many painters are trying to go. Gerhard Richter’s insistence that it is no longer possible to just make up your own images no longer seems to trouble artists. It will be interesting to see how Brown develops in this new atmosphere.


This is the unedited original English text that was published in an edited Dutch translation in Metropolis M No 6-2004

Glenn Brown is on show at the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem untill February 16th, 2014

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2016