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“Directions—Cecily Brown”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to March 2

At the National Gallery of Art’s recent “Willem de Kooning: Tracing the Figure” exhibition of works on paper, the age-old goddess/whore dichotomy received a provocative twist. It wasn’t the goddess who was cherished and the whore who elicited apprehension, but the opposite. As plump and inviting as eiderdowns below the neck, above it de Kooning’s women of the late ’40s and early ’50s arouse fear and trembling.

This was an outgrowth not only of the artist’s own psychology, but also of the times. The fierce Sumerian gaze of the figures erupted out of

de Kooning’s early-’40s sketches in which a woman’s raw-boned, bug-eyed head perches atop a thinly but chastely draped body. These, in turn, shared a zeitgeist with Arshile Gorky’s talismanic images of his mother, whom he gave a protective, omniscient stare, and John Graham’s own Ingres-influenced women, each a distant, cross-eyed seer.

Rueful though he might have been that godhead and whorebody came as a matched set, de Kooning simply couldn’t bear forgoing carnal comfort. But rather than decapitate his women and unmake the goddess, he buffeted the viewer away from her gaze with the billows of her breasts, guiding the eye down to the welcoming swell of the mons veneris. There safe harbor is expressed via a standard motif: Whether composed of curving buttocks and the vertical cleft between them or the lines of the vulva itself, the form of an anchor signifies sanctuary. It’s a nice touch, a high-low melange of Homeric homecoming and “Howdy, sailor!”

This is a formidable, and formidably masculine, lineage to overthrow. A young painter who has taken the fraught semifigurative/ semiabstract midperiod de Kooning as her model, Cecily Brown obviously needed to work past his bitch goddess. She does so explosively in Spree (1998-1999), one of seven oils hanging in the Hirshhorn’s Directions gallery for the New York-based Briton’s first solo museum show. A squatting, splayed woman is blown apart by an obliterating, Bacon-esque blast of smeared grisaille. De Kooning’s anchor is shattered; a rivulet of blood trickles out. Seizing for her neo-action painting the double meaning of her title, Brown casts herself as a manic sex-murderer, destroying, as all such killers do, the image of woman she has been burdened with.

Although the bulk of the show is devoted to paintings in which Brown remodels abstract expressionism, claiming it for herself by blotting out its conception of the feminine vessel (now would be as good a time as any to mention Pollock’s The Deep), in Father of the Bride (1998-1999) the central figure would appear to be Sargent’s Madame X. Again in grisaille, she turns away, leaving us to bask in the colorful strokes that surge and stutter around her. The Spencer Tracy vehicle from which the canvas takes its name is ostensibly a light comedy about a suburban dad coming to grips psychologically, socially, and financially with the imminent departure of his only daughter. It is overshadowed, however, by the creepy, possessive reluctance of Father to relinquish the virgin he has guarded zealously since birth and nurtured as a reminder of the lost purity of his wife. The daughter is having none of this, but she’s still a child of the ’40s. Half a century later, though, the dynamic isn’t about giving away or going away; it’s about taking everything a girl can get her hands on—or legs around.

For its part, Dogday Afternoon (1999) has virtually nothing to do with the Sidney Lumet movie and everything to do with the nudity-inspiring heat of the single day in which Brown painted it. Here, the Sargent role is taken by Yves Klein, whose Anthropometry series has probably been subjected to more feminist parodies—particularly at the art-school level—than any other episode in modernism. Brown plays along with Klein’s woman-as-paintbrush conceit, pressing her lips and breasts to the canvas, substituting imprints of more erotic body parts for signs of her painterly “hand.” It’s freer, faster, and more open than Brown’s other paintings, passing in a blur. But like her other large canvases, it’s hard to get a hold on, hard to recall, in the way that really good sex isn’t necessarily really memorable sex: You return to earth as if from a dream, a little abashed at having been taken so helplessly away.

For the Hirshhorn’s own Hoodlum (2000-2001), Brown returned to Spree’s stream of lifeblood to dip her brush. The result is a Gustonlike fog of light and flesh. Brown considers herself a figurative painter, and there are supposedly bodies hidden in there somewhere, but I’m in no hurry to locate them—at her best, Brown can do without. If we’re to trust her revision, back when the ab-ex field was interpreted as somehow “cosmic” and artists looked outward to journey inward, they were holding the map upside-down. How better to explore the universe than by embracing the body first?

Two smaller paintings suffer from allowing us to get our bearings too easily, the outcome of both diminished scale and excessively clear delineation of forms. As adaptations of richly populated old-master tableaux, they seem too much like nontraditional treatments of overly familiar dramas. There’s novelty in recasting Bosch with demonic bunnies and other such critters, as an eye-catching but clumsy untitled 1997 canvas does, but the result, sort of an Ernest and Celestine’s XXX Liveshow at the Cockfight Intermission in the Umpteenth Circle of Rabbit Hell, is a bit of a head-scratcher. And although Brown’s paint-handling had grown much more assured by the time she made 2001’s Bacchanal, there’s nothing too Dionysian about envisioning Poussin’s The Triumph of Pan as a wind-tossed Edwardian bonnet about to splash in a mud puddle.

It’s with the larger pictures that Brown gives the Western art tradition something it has heretofore lacked, as opposed to something it could do just as well without. A few years ago, Jenny Saville was hailed for providing the dour, predictable synthesis of riot grrrl and Lucian Freud. Brown’s take on de Kooning, driven by a violently joyous sexuality and drenched in a love of painting, is a happier turn.

Of all the pictures at the Hirshhorn, Second Honeymoon (1999) carries Brown’s post-priapic abstraction the furthest. Again, if you look harder for bodies in the fleshy golden hash than I intend to—I’ve always believed clouds are diminished by finding ducks in them—there’s apparently a threesome involved. But the general atmosphere is of sunny, sloppy sex—the kind you can have after the bloodwork comes in, or if you just don’t give a damn about tomorrow. Flat against the curving gallery wall, the painting is large enough to cast a convex shadow beneath it; it’s as if the picture is advancing out to swallow you. I don’t see how a guy can help feeling a little overawed by the power of female ecstasy—somewhat shut out from it, perhaps, but humbled just to be in the vicinity. And Second Honeymoon dwells on the heights of the orgasmic plateau.

I can’t claim to be a true scholar of outgroove inscriptions, those shreds of pop arcana cherished by collectors of indie 45s, but one that sticks in my mind seems particularly appropriate. “Why penetration?” asks the A-side of Pavement’s “Summer Babe.” On the reverse, “Why not envelopement?” Spelling aside, I can’t think of any reason at all. CP