Back when email was a glimmer in the mind's eye of a lonely data-jockey, Morse code ruled the airwaves. The network didn't pulse and hum so much as tap and click. Braided strings of algorithmic code were simple dots and dashes in a percussive dance of the palm. It seems we've always let our fingers do the walking - even before CB radio, Morse enthusiasts pounded out their unique 'handles' in an autograph of literal beats and pregnant pauses. Experts were said to possess a 'subtle fist' - stroking the transmitter with fast twitch skills in a low-bandwidth medium. An analogy with painting is apt: they are both anachronistic communication mechanisms based on fundamental touch, in which the nuances of how a message is expressed contains as much information as the more objective 'what?'. When neo-Expressionist kitsch and jokey sci-fi painting clogs galleries like the cheap glitter static of ham radio novices, method begins to trump myth, or so one would hope in considering Cecily Brown's paintings. That is to say, if we're convinced her restless attacks on the canvas possess some kind of authentic tension, some signature re-orienting of space through aggregate mark-making, then content does indeed become king. We become predisposed to hear the message if we trust the skills of the messenger. Moreover, that missive carries with it an underlying sense of urgency, even inevitability, squelching the competing din of voices. If not? Well, if not, we fail to care.
In the case of Brown's cascades of molten colour the risk is certainly high - even more so since the din of competition (Pollock, De Kooning, even Dubuffet) has long since been relegated to dusty monographs. Toppling straw men by going toe-to-toe with their ghosts is a rare strategy for a young artist. Especially since Pop has cannibalised itself into widespread acceptance in a market desperate for regressive tokens to furnish the horror-vacui of the rich. Pokemon and Lara Croft can only pacify so much before their cutesy charms begin to grate and Brown seems to know this.
Stranger still is the widespread consensus that Brown is a talented and technically sophisticated painter. However, the rush to backslapping agreement seems to carry the seeds of its own self-doubt. The work is too figurative they say, its cock and ball imagery too in line with the artist's own sexual self-possession, a sort of Viagra for an erotic school of abstract painting that can no longer convey the multivalent intimacies, the disappointments and false-starts, of 'real sex'. One thing is certain: the equation that chaotic strokes combined with a slick, lacquered surface equals post-coital bliss (or more dubiously, a kind of tangled foreplay), has got to go. Catalogue references to de Sade's Justine (1791), riot grrrl mantras like 'Girl's don't just get fucked, they fuck back' (also in the catalogue), and, most cynically, co-opting the dissolute spectre of Francis Bacon as a form of hard living bohemian truth, aren't fooling anybody.
Nor should they. Brown's work more than holds its own as a compensatory guide for desires based solely on her incremental syncopation of lustrous, often abbreviated, strokes. Cocks are no more spectacular for their enormity than her glossy rose and pink palette is for suggesting the moist interior of a labial fold. Clearly, however, Brown is not cunningly riding the coat-tails of sexual glut with her paintings, nor is she directing us to its ubiquitous presence - here, as in the culture at large. It's simply that by internalising one of the last modes of free expression, Brown is able to graft the fevered joy of splayed limbs and puckered orifices onto a kinetic AbEx armature without burying the identity of her 'subtle fist' within a swirling eddy of viscous, overlapping marks. We should be grateful for that, as well as for Interlude (1999), a piece with vast uninterrupted swathes of beige and hardly a hint of dripping bodies. Its silences are a breath, not a gasp.
First published in Issue 52