Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Glenn Brown

Architecture and Morality, 2004
Oil on prepared wooden panel 140 x 98 cm

Serpentine Gallery, London
8th October 2004

This was a really influential show for me even though I had already seen his work before when he was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2000. It wasn't that the work was substantially different from that included in the Turner, but more that I had developed and matured as an artist and got a lot more from seeing the paintings. Having said the work was similar, the piece I have chosen was painted after the earlier exhibition and is a fine example of melanchoilc surrealism.

He is perhaps best known for his portraiture, and this is indeed a classic ‘head’ and shoulders portrait of a man, but in true surrealist fashion the head has been replaced with a bunch of chrysanthemums that are past their best. The title is from an album made by the “new romantic” synth band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in 1981 and through this association, a melancholic aura is projected onto the painting. Marcel Duchamp called the modern title an “invisible colour" and I agree with Alison Gingeras that Brown uses his titles as a way of wresting the appropriated work(s) to his own agenda[1].

This, as is most of his work, is appropriated from the work of others, but is not a direct copy. In this case the elements from two paintings, chrysanthemum heads from a Fantin Latour still life and a man’s body reworked from a portrait by Lucien Freud. Brown asserts that he has a vague idea at the outset and then searches through books and catalogues to find a painting that fits the idea. He works from the reproduction, possibly manipulating it with computer software.

He tends to use yet another, perhaps totally unrelated, painting as the source of the palette – in this case I don’t know that specific source. Green grey background. Whites with cold blues in the shirt, whites with faded yellows for the flowers, dark green and browns for the stems. Small flash of yellow on the sleeve of the shirt.

Essentially his work is a trompe l’oeil, in that he paints paint that has had the life sucked out of it through photography and reproduction and reinvigorates it so that it looks like it has depth and texture! His painting simulates rich impasto marks, but is in fact absolutely, totally flat. To achieve this he uses tiny sable hair brushes to apply swirling varying patches of colour in the desired colour scheme. Despite the flatness there is a unique character to his brushwork (does the colour and placement of these marks come from some kind of computer filter or does he draw them up beforehand?)

This idea of painting paint, could be linked to Roy Lichtenstein – automating production of the painterly gesture. According to Brown this erasure of the Expressionist gesture is linked to Gerhard Richter’s theory that painting and photography are now forever linked. Brown cites his early influences as David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Sigmar Polke but quickly moves on to express admiration of Picasso and Matisse for their use of colour, form and contradictory use of space.[2]

Glenn Brown studied at the same art college as myself and he has a retrospective coming up this year from 20th February until 10th May at Tate Liverpool .

[1] 'Glenn Brown', Gingeras, Alison M., Serpentine Gallery London 2004, pp19-20
[2] GB in interview with Rochelle Steiner 'Glenn Brown', Gingeras, Alison M., Serpentine Gallery London 2004, pp95


  1. A very interesting painting ( new-land for me) and a very detaiiled, thoughtful, perceptive analysis! My first association was: influenced by Guiseppe Archimboldo, but after some minutes I recognize there is a new idea, style and surely intention! There are also some hints to Barock stillife- carpe diem/ joy of life and signs of vanity at the same place! The face has been filled with dying or dead flowers and faded colours, but there is still life because new white flowers are growing out of the head of the man! A fascinating kind of a portrait showing the inner and outer developments and changes of an individual during the ages and the course of life- some flowers might have fallen down, too- we are similar to plants indeed! I have also a melancholic feeling - asters are autumn flowers, the brown, dried up toning is dominant! I have to noticed this name in my mind! The ambitious title is rather confusing for me- I might need more time to think over that!

  2. An interesting link to Glenn Brown- he compares himself to "Doctor Frankenstein" having composed his figures from different bones he cited or remembered- or to a labor scientist; http://www.holzwarth-publications.de/pages_buecher/brown.html

  3. While looking at this and your painting I thought of a poem of Gottfried Benn, Kleine Aster- not only because of the flowers looking like asters, but also because of a special feeling of death and decadence combined with a kind of sarcasm and nihilism. Sadly, the poem, translated in English, cannot be copied and reproduced (see google: Gottfried Benn, Little Aster/Kleine Aster).

  4. Gottfried Benn, Kleine Aster

    Ein ersoffener Bierfahrer wurde auf den Tisch gestemmt.
    Irgendeiner hatte ihm eine dunkelhelllila Aster
    zwischen die Zähne geklemmt.
    Als ich von der Brust aus
    unter der Haut
    mit einem langen Messer
    Zunge und Gaumen herausschnitt,
    muß ich sie umgestoßen haben, denn sie glitt
    in das nebenliegende Gehirn.
    Ich packte sie ihm in die Brusthöhle
    zwischen Holzwolle,
    als man zunähte.
    Trinke dich satt in deiner Vase!
    Ruhe sanft,
    kleine Aster.

    A drowned beer carter was heaved onto the table
    Someone or other had clamped a dark light lilac aster
    between his teeth.
    When, entering from the chest
    under the skin
    with a long knife I cut out the tongue and palate,
    I must have bumped it, for it slid
    into the brain lying alongside.
    I packed it into his chest-cavity
    with the sawdust stuffing
    when we sewed up.
    Drink your fill in your vase!
    Rest in peace
    little aster!