Summary

Trouble in Paradise hovers between representation and abstraction, between the depiction of figures engaged in an indistinct sexual act and a bravura display of brushwork. Broad areas of flesh colour on the left of the picture suggest a woman’s parted legs. In the top left corner of the painting is a face, its mouth gaping in pleasure or horror. A grey form in the centre of the composition resembles a man’s naked back. Set against a black background which heightens the drama of the painting, ribbons and swirls of warm colour cover almost the entire surface of the painting.

Brown’s work is a visceral representation of sexuality in paint, with bodies depicted in bold painterly gestures and fleshy colours. Brown’s evident mastery of her medium is evidenced in the fluency with which she moves from anatomical description to sheer exuberant gesturalism. Vibrant red, yellow and pink paint has been worked into the canvas in impasto layers. The painting is covered with a glossy varnish, giving the surface a reflective, tactile finish.

Trouble in Paradise was painted in New York, where the British-born artist has lived and worked since the mid-1990s. It marks a shift in Brown’s work from earlier, more explicit depictions of orgiastic abandon to looser, more allusive imagery. Passages in the painting refer to bits of the anatomy, most obviously in the left half of the image, where fragmented parts of a female body are visible beneath a carnivalesque riot of colour. It is possible to see the head and shoulder of a leering man dominating the top right corner and caricatured mask-like faces appearing out of the swirls in the top left and middle right of the image. Almost as soon as these figures appear they melt away. The writer A.M. Homes has likened the experience of looking at Brown’s work to undertaking a psychodiagnostic test. She describes the paintings as ‘your personal projection, your retinal Rorschach’ (Homes, ‘Motion Pictures’, Cecily Brown, p.67). The implication is that what is visible in the paintings may be as much to do with the viewer’s projected desires as the artist’s intention. This is confirmed by the artist’s own description of her work. Brown has claimed, ‘the place I am interested in is where the mind goes when it’s trying to make up for what isn’t there’ (quoted in Robert Evrén, ‘A Dispatch from the Tropic of Flesh’, Cecily Brown, p.8).

Brown’s style is indebted to the gestural expressionism of Willem de Kooning (1904-97). Her bold use of colour, dramatic variation of brushwork and sexualised subject matter all recall the monumental series of paintings of women de Kooning began in the early 1950s (see The Visit, 1966-7, Tate T01108). The dreamlike eroticism of Trouble in Paradise evokes drawings by André Masson (1896-1987), while Brown’s hybrid biomorphic forms show the influence of Arshile Gorky (1904-48).

Further reading:
Robert Evrén and A.M. Homes, Cecily Brown: Paintings 1998-2000, exhibition catalogue, Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2000, reproduced no.24 in colour.
Martin Maloney, ‘Cecily Brown’, Modern Painters, vol.12, no.2, Summer 1999, p.98, reproduced in colour.
Adrian Dannatt, ‘Goodness gracious! Dare one say landscape paintings?’ Art Newspaper, no.123, March 2002, p.21.

Rachel Taylor
November 2003