Published  15/06/2015

Cecily Brown: ‘In a way you can see things more clearly when they’re small’

Cecily Brown: ‘In a way you can see things more clearly when they’re small’

The artist talks about her latest exhibition, The English Garden, explains why it is a lot harder to make a small painting than a big one, why the surface of a painting is so important for her, and how she uses other artists as her source


In her current exhibition at Maccarone, New York, Cecily Brown presents a selection of her paintings made during the course of the past decade. Unlike the large-scale landscapes that have formed the centre of her practice over the last 20 years, these works are diminutive in comparison, not measuring much more than 12in (30cm) on each side, and are being displayed for the first time. Reflecting on the changes implicit in this difference in canvas size, the writer Jim Lewis, who curated the exhibition, considered these works as “gardens”. The title of the show, The English Garden, highlights the pastoral quality of the paintings, as well as their more intimate, private nature. A limited-edition book of the same name, published by Karma, which features an evocative short story by Lewis, along with illustrations of Brown's paintings, accompanies the exhibition.

Born in 1969, in London, Brown received a degree in fine art from the Slade School of Fine Art in 1993 and moved to New York in 1995, where she has since been based. In September, the artist will be showing new works at Contemporary Fine Art, Berlin, and next year will have her debut exhibition at Thomas Dane Gallery, London.

Studio International spoke to Brown at her studio in Manhattan.

Allie Biswas: How long have you been working on these smaller canvases?

Cecily Brown: I’ve been painting these smaller works for a long time. The earliest ones in the exhibition date from 2005. Because I put things aside a lot, I thought I had so many. But, partly because of the small nature of them, because they’re so easy to store and keep, I actually didn’t have as many as I had thought. So maybe in total there were around 45. But there are more that are unfinished, or that I wouldn’t let out. And some that maybe I like just for myself. The exhibition includes 29 works.

AB: This is the first time they will be shown in public. How much did Jim Lewis, the curator, have to persuade you?

CB: Well, Michele Maccarone and I have been friends with Jim for some time, and he had this idea to do a small paintings show at Michelle’s gallery. It just sounded like such a great idea to me. It of course helped that Jim had written an essay for an exhibition I did about five years ago, and in it there was a passage about one of my small paintings, which I’d always thought was just so fabulous. Therefore, when Jim suggested that I have a show of just my small paintings, I immediately thought that he should write about the works. I wanted to do a book instead of a catalogue, so Jim decided he would write a short story.

AB: The book includes a few more paintings than in the exhibition.

CB: Yes, the book is a good size, about 70 pages, and there are 39 paintings printed. Once I’d read Jim’s story, I was able to think about how we would place the paintings in the book.

AB: Would you describe these works as preparatory?

CB: No. In fact, that’s absolutely not the point. That’s usually the first thing I say about them. When I first started working this small, a lot of people asked if they were studies for the larger ones. They’re not at all. The point of this exhibition is to show a body of work that has been going on for 10 years, side by side with the larger canvases. So, whatever you see in the small works, there was probably something very similar going on in the big ones of the same years.

AB: Do you find that your painting process changes significantly when you’re working at this type of scale?

CB: Yes, the scale definitely changes things. In a way, these works are closer to my drawings and watercolours. The main difference between these and the large-scale works is absolutely due to the way each is made. As the smaller works are made while I’m sitting down, it’s a smaller movement that I’m making, and the brushes I’m using are smaller. I don’t have to walk around the canvas or stoop over it. So the physical side of it is very different. There is a closeness and directness that I think is very similar to the drawings, because of my relationship to them as I make them.

AB: Presumably that means that you are also in a very different frame of mind.

CB: It is a quieter process, definitely. And, this is a cliche, but it is a lot harder to make a small painting than a big one. You don’t have the grandeur, and the automatically impressive thing of the big painting. When you walk into a gallery and see a big painting, it’s sort of overwhelming. You are very enveloped by it. And with these, it’s more mental and less physical. It’s very intense. There was one moment when I started calling them the Neurotic Paintings. There was a middle period when they were becoming just so overworked. And at the same time the big ones were becoming very loose and open. I’d sit down with one and wouldn’t get up for six hours. It was very obsessive.

AB: The surface of each painting is surprisingly flat, given what you are saying about producing something that is overworked.

CB: I’m really invested in what things look like up-close. I hate it when you love a painting, and when you go and look at it closely the surface is really disappointing. The surface looks dead, or the artist was thinking too much about the whole image. To me, the surface is incredibly important. Sometimes I’ll get rid of something, even if I like the way the painting looks from across the room, if it has that dryness or built-up quality.

AB: Surface must be one of the most difficult elements to control, when you are working with paint, given that it could dry before you’ve finished working on it.

CB: Absolutely. Because of the practical nature, I can’t paint on something the next day, or for a few days after, because the surface is tacky. So sometimes, because the day ended, the canvas was still wet when I left the studio. One of the hardest things about leaving the studio is when you’re still working, and then the frustration of knowing that you can’t really change it the next day. And I always find it very hard at the end of a day of painting to be able to see what I was doing that day, because you’re so close to it. Then by the next day it’s hard to change it. You then have to wait a few days. The upside of this is that you tend to make less rash decisions. But it is about finding that balance. You can make a rash decision, and it’s the most dramatic thing you could have done, and something that shouldn’t have worked did actually work. But you also have to step outside of the work. It’s very much this game of stepping outside and then throwing yourself back in. Often I’ll just paint and not really look at what I’m doing for a few hours. One wants to get consumed by it.

AB: What are you currently working on? Is this large canvas on the wall a work in progress?

CB: This is one of those really frustrating ones because I liked it too early on, which is always a bit of a trap. And then after a couple of months I kept thinking, it’s not enough. So I went back into it. I’ve consequently almost declared it finished twice before. Then I’ve had it in the corner for the last week, and decided that it’s really not completed. Today, I’ve just worked on it and I’m now going to be able to move on because I’ve disrupted it enough. There was something really satisfying about the early composition. It was actually copied from a motif in Picasso’sRape of the Sabines, so it almost couldn’t really go wrong because of this solid composition. But if that is sorted out early on, it can sometimes hold you back. Part of my whole thing is to discover it as I go along. I don’t want to have it figured out too early on.

AB: I know that you frequently use work by other artists as your source.

CB: For this one I was working from an image that was three inches square, which I’d ripped out of a newspaper.

AB: And you managed to get the detail just from that.

CB: In a way you can see things more clearly when they’re small. It’s like squinting at something. You see it more in black and white. Rape of the Sabines has been a subject that I’ve always been drawn to, even though it’s a horrible subject. But some of the most amazing paintings in history are of that subject.

AB: There are a lot of smaller works here in your studio – watercolour and pastel drawings on A4-sized pieces of paper, for example. What makes you shift from wanting to make an oil canvas to producing a work on paper?

CB: These little pastel studies were done maybe a year ago now. And at the time I thought that I loved pastel and that I should really do more. But I didn't, not for another year anyway. I'm not sure why. Maybe because I was a bit scared of it. My prints had become much bigger. I had made a huge lithograph on paper. I don't know why sometimes I pick one medium over another, or one size of canvas over another. I think it’s probably just instinctive most of the time.

AB: Is this lithograph a copy of something? It feels very illustrative.

CB: Yes, this is a copy of a Hogarth. This is something that feels very much for myself, for my own research. Copying Hogarth is a really good way of learning how to use space. The work is called Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn. He is so helpful because his compositions are the most profound and masterful. Every centimetre is teeming with energy and yet it is very contained. That’s what I’m always after.

AB: Do you think your paintings are contained?

CB: I think there are definitely moments when my painting is very energetic, but it can become almost spewing at times. And when it gets to be too much, I have to edit the painting. It’s about catching the moment when it’s a little too overwrought.

Cecily Brown: The English Garden is at Maccarone in New York until 20 June. 

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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