Glenn Brown “Reproduction” 2014

I have been aware of the work of artist Glenn Brown ever since he was first introduced in the 1990s as a loose member of the British YBA group. The artists’ paintings have changed minimally over time, Brown has found great success to the tune of auction prices into the millions of dollars. In Britain, Brown is considered something of a unicorn, a conceptually motivated artist who is absolutely committed to the practice of painting.

Glenn Brown Is on view at the Contemporary Arts Center through January 15. The exhibition is a generous survey of many paintings as well as as a handful of sculptures, drawings, and even a recent suite of etchings. This show represents Brown’s first US Museum survey.

One can easily make a list of the virtues of Brown’s painting practice. Brown is a meticulous craftsman in a time when provisional or quick approaches to painting are popular. The artist clearly loves the history of art, his own works reference any number of canonical or historical sources. He is seriously invested in the fertile relationship between painting and the reproduced image. He is enormously ambitious, his paintings stretch across the traditional genres of still life portrait and landscape. Furthermore, Brown is a champion of painting, wanting his works to stand alongside great works from history. Perhaps most importantly, he is instantly recognizable. His spooky writhing surfaces and acidic color are unmistakable.

Yet, standing in front of Brown’s work, quietly with no-one else around, which I did on three separate visits, is not just underwhelming-it is virtually boring.

Glenn Brown “The Shallow End” 2011

The problem is in the paintings themselves. They are flat-footed literal affairs, with little room for mystery or interest. The ideas are transparent and the execution is painfully programmatic. For an artist seemingly engaged with history and paint, these are dreary results.

For art objects to work there must be a transformation when the parts become the sum. Brown is essentially a conceptual artist engaged with the reproduction of art historical images recast as living dead- the death of painting treated like a joke, a morbid sense of humor taken seriously. Brown embraces paradox in his paintings, optically active surfaces, created by accumulating small string like marks are rendered super flat, so that the surface of the painting itself is as level as a poured concrete floor. This literal “surfacing” of his historical sources reads more like cgi than material investment.

Take Stardust, 2009 for example. The work is based on Young Girl Holding Two Puppies by the French painter Jean-Honore Fragonard.

Glenn Brown “Stardust” and Fragonard “Young Girl with Two Puppies”

Brown reproduces the image faithfully, then turns up the volume. The color becomes painfully clear and nameable, the contrast gets juiced, and the surface appearance takes on Brown’s signature shiver. The fact that the most recognizable aspects of the painting referenced have been cribbed whole cloth gives the work an “important by association” quality. Brown reminds the viewer of an old master, thereby creating a relationship of shallow scholarship with the history of painting. The public should question an artist whose work hinges on a single technical gimmick and an idea that is self evident.

I will admit that I have an exceptionally biased read on Brown’s work, I believe painting to be a serious endeavor, so I am obligated to to have a strong opinion.  I have respect for Glenn Brown the craftsman. Appreciation of Brown’s work is expected, and those viewers who hold summer blockbusters and mass produced popular music in high esteem will be especially enamored.

–Emil Robinson

0 Responses

  1. Excellent review that for me says it all. I enjoyed the artist’s talk and looked carefully at the entire show but felt only two or three of the works had inner life or artistic force. When this show goes down, let’s see some of the best of our local artists who are showing us how figurative painting still lives in fresh, authentic, and contemporary ways. In one of his Discourses, Sir Joshua Reynolds spoke dismissively of those who live “on the banks of the Ohio.” No need for such attitudes today.

  2. I am the curator at the CAC where the Glenn Brown exhibition is currently taking place, and feel the need to reply to this contentious article by Emil Robinson. I am a steadfast champion of art criticism and rarely challenge a review – positive or negative – but there are a number of unfair and short-sighted criticisms made here that must be addressed to provide AEQAI readers with a more accurate representation of what Brown is doing with his work. Good criticism should inspire debate, and there is much to contest here.

    I must first thank the reviewer for his time in researching this review and visiting the CAC multiple times to engage with the work in question. There is no doubt that Mr. Robinson considered the work from a painter’s purview and did not write casually or without a sustained awareness of Brown’s practice. But it is also blatantly clear that when Mr. Robinson says that he is “exceptionally biased” when listing his grievances and Brown’s supposed shortcomings, that this has circumscribed his ability to recognize major elements of Brown’s work.

    Mr. Robinson dismisses Brown’s paintings as “flat-footed literal affairs” that fail to go beyond surface level re-creations of pre-existing paintings. He accuses Brown of “shallow scholarship” and “a single technical gimmick” in the process of creating work that, for the reviewer, fails to achieve the status of a “serious endeavor.” In so doing, he looks past crucial dimensions of Brown’s evolving strategy of appropriation that are essential to consider this work fairly. It seems likely Mr. Robinson would write off artists such as Elaine Sturtevant, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Anne Collier and a number of other smart, but controversial artists who thoughtfully navigate the complex terrain of what “copies” mean in the age of mechanical reproduction.

    As a case in point, Mr. Robinson condemns Brown’s “Stardust” as a shallow regurgitation of a Fragonard painting without acknowledging the multiple layers beyond this initial engagement. Brown also incorporates a crucial reference to Jeff Koons’ work here and, in doing so, the larger enterprise of creative property legislation and the legacy of the mentor/protégé apprenticeship system. There is also a reference to a Joni Mitchell song here, which points to Brown’s continuing strategy of titling work with other references to popular culture that open up new associations and avenues of interpretation (rather than literal titles that Brown sees as dead ends). “Stardust” becomes a portal to a palimpsest of questions and debates that span multiple eras of art history…for those who choose to go beyond a primary level assessment of the painting. The same can be said for all the works in this exhibition.

    Mr. Robinson condemns this show to those shallow, superficial gallery goers with an intelligence limited to the appreciation of “summer blockbusters and mass produced popular music.” I invite all audiences to this exhibition to see for themselves, spend time, consider the multiple references, layers and associations at play here, and go beyond the surface.

  3. I felt obligated to write this review, Steve. I admire the work you do at the CAC. You bring a diverse and high level of work to the institution, and I have enjoyed the majority of your shows. You are clearly a smart and engaged curator and we are lucky to have you!

    There is a difference between recognizing the many layers of reference in Brown’s work and thinking they are successful artistically- especially when Brown’s perspective manifests itself as visual art of the most traditional and material kind. Glenn Brown is a dedicated painter. It seems only fair to estimate his project within this purview of which there is a long history and many rigorous contemporary practitioners of greater achievement.

    Although Sherrie Levine and Anne Collier are not favorite artists of mine, I do find their work much more interesting than Brown’s. I think they are more purposeful and nuanced participants in a discussion that not only regards image reproduction, but gender and authority. Their engagement with reproduction is more direct and pointed. Brown’s engagement with reproduction seems watered down — worn like clothing instead of skin. Elaine Sturtevant is an interesting point of reference — I didn’t know her work.

    The main problem with Brown’s project is that it is about reproduction, but then it is also about his own approach to physical painting. I cant reconcile these two things in his particular work.

    I do regret the last line of my review — I wanted to say that I think the CAC is expecting too little from their public with this particular exhibition as opposed to saying the public is dumb — I apologize for that and do not believe it. We are an intelligent city and you are a worthy gatekeeper for our cultural exposure.

  4. I want to thank Emil for his kind and generous comments about my work at the CAC, and for graciously acknowledging the work we do to bring diverse and provocative work to Cincinnati. Rather than exhibit artists that are met with almost universal critical praise, we often showcase artists and artworks that have had much more mixed (and often ambivalent) response in the effort to inspire dialectics and debate. Artists like Do Ho Suh are easy to embrace (and deservedly so), but we find equal value in showing artists like Glenn Brown and Roe Ethridge who inspire heated reactions across the spectrum . Their works live as agents and catalysts for larger deliberations that we enjoy bringing to this city so that local and regional audiences can see the work first hand and contribute to the respective discourse.

    Emil is right in saying that there is a critical right/freedom to judge if layers of reference are artistically successful (particularly if they are implicit), but I would argue they need to be recognized (or at least noted) in a review that deems the work in question to be shallow or one-note. Brown could operate on a more objective, mechanical level in the realm of appropriation and weave networks of intertextual reference via collage, prints and digital means…but he is a virtuosic painter and the art of painting is crucial to his practice. He loves the gesture, the material, the history and the many lingering challenges and problems that the medium presents.

    By wrestling with loaded concepts of beauty and ugliness, Brown is a key player in another subgenre of painting that incites equally polarizing reactions of love and hate. Along with artists like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, as well as Dana Schutz and Allison Schulnik, there are a number of painters working today that navigate the thorny terrain of the grotesque as an aesthetic seduction. The quasi-puritanical anti-aesthetic of the 1990s has loosened to incorporate this consideration within the art world, but there is still a lingering mistrust of technical craftsmanship and representational virtuosity that Brown and his contemporaries engage via unconventional means.

    All this to say that we fundamentally believe that the work of Glenn Brown circulates within important discussions that resonate through art history, and is more than worthy of exhibition. Whether one deems his contribution to be successful or not is of course subjective, but we strive to present the full picture and allow the conversations to percolate from there.

  5. I’m not sure market tested Gagosian artist Glenn Brown is especially polarizing for the public. My column was meant to introduce a voice of critique into what I assumed would be a generally favorable response. I am excited for the upcoming show by Noel Anderson who may present an opportunity for real soul searching and discomfort. In regards to the painters you mentioned- a show of Schulnick and Schutz would be very exciting- throw in Eisenman for a powerhouse trifecta!

  6. Fascinating exchange gentlemen. The type that a meaningful exhibition and criticism is meant to engender. For myself I’d had like to see a deeper dive by Emil into the many layers, mostly ironic, of Brown’s work. But having reviewed numerous shows myself I often regret what remains unsaid for reasons of neglect, temperament, tone or, most often, time.

    Speaking of ironies in Brown’s work, it’s my observation that the enjoyment of the work hinges quite a bit on one’s appetite for the ironic. He’s ultimately picking apart the history of painting for many reasons, the most important being to question the modernist/expressionist dogma of an individual style expressing some sort of inner-self. That sort of expression, “mystery” and originality is what Emil is looking for (I think) and what Brown openly disavows. Brown’s approach isn’t really anything new (which he’s probably OK with), but he does it with the added layer of craft and virtuosity.

    I do like how Brown questions notions of “style” in his work, although, as Emil points out, his style is instantly recognizable, another irony I guess.

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