Sunday, 22 March 2009

Glenn Brown

Nausea, 2008
Oil on Panel 155 x 120 cm
Tate Liverpool
17 March 2009

It is always strange visiting a gallery for the first time because the environment has to be absorbed as well as the work. This was no exception and I was lucky to be able to spend a few hours with the paintings, most of the time as the only visitor in a particular room. The show is impressive and the way the work was hung brought out some interesting relationships and conversations between them. Particularly impressive were room 3 with five paintings based on a piece by Frank Auerbach and room 7 with three paintings of tragicomic, anthropomorphic blobs, namely The Hinterland 2006, Seventeen Seconds 2005 and International Velvet 2004.

Whilst there were many paintings I could have selected on the basis of technique, composition or colour, I have chosen one that sums up the entire show in just the title, Nausea. Looking at Brown’s paintings en masse or indeed too closely, nausea is the sensation I feel. In fact nausea is not a sickness, but rather a symptom of other conditions which may not be related to the stomach but trigger the response.

Interestingly, nausea is often indicative of an underlying condition of melancholia and it is well known that Jean Paul Sartre novel Nausea was originally called Melencholia, but the editor changed it. In Sartre’s existentialist novel, the protagonist, Roquentin, suffers from ennui and has random and unexpected bouts of nausea which he finally gets used to and deals with as he becomes aware that there isn’t any Meaning to life, just pure existence.

Brown’s starting point is the same source that Francis Bacon used for Head VI; a reproduction of Velázquez’s portrait of "Pope Innocent X". He then not only distorts the image by rotating it 180 degrees, in the manner of Georg Baselitz, but crops the head, adds the border from the printed page or postcard as an integral part of the painting and a flat pink circular “moon”. This is the first direct reference to the printed source of Brown’s images, and utilises the early strategies employed by Gerhard Richter to destroy the illusion of his photorealism by cropping the source so that the white margins (and sometimes text) were visible, whilst portions of the image were lost. The pink spot may be a reference to Sigmar Polke paintings of the same era.

Add to these knowing, but appropriate references, Brown’s swirling painted ‘brush marks’ and the livid colour scheme, and the result is an image of death and decay. The painting coldly asserts, through the motif of the distorted pontiff, that there isn’t a Spiritual Essence in the Universe. All we have is the despair at the pointlessness of one’s own existence, and if one uses the analogy of looking too long or too closely, for thinking too hard or too rationally, sensations of disgust and nausea. It is hard to summarise it better than Bataille’s 1958 review of Satre’s literary work “the entire novelistic work of Sartre seems haunted by an obsession with a rotten decomposed mouldy world one full of sickening secretions” [1]. The same could be said for Brown’s obsessions in his paintings.

[1] Menninghaus, Winfried Disgust: the theory and history of a strong sensation SUNY Press 2003 p356

©blackdog 2009


  1. You have given a very good insight into the special character of Glenn Brown's painting, his sources, and his 'philosophy'. I belong to the generation (after WW II) having been fascinated -as youngster/students- by an existentialism a la Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and/or Camus, and I can well understand that also the arts must go new ways then. (In my memory the term 'freedom' was a more predominant one, besides 'ennui/' nausea'/ 'atheism'... considering the old rotten world whose estimated 'values' didn't prevent the horrible acts of holocaust/ war...)- I can imagine that the painting of GB might provoke a "sensation" like "nausea"! I remember a former painting which I found a bit appealing- the human beans have lost their face, the depictured one is a per-verted figure (in a literal sense, because being put on head), a kind of Zombie, more mask, dressed up/maked-up from fragments reminding of former paintings, than a person of real flesh and blood, although a bit looking like an anatomy-person or a butcher-pic! Creepy- terrible figures from Frankenstein-Country? (I may be inspired by a sentence of GB himself: „Ich bin ein bisschen wie Doktor Frankenstein, denn ich baue meine Bilder mit Überresten oder toten Teilen von Arbeiten anderer Künstler.“) Never I could say: I like this pic or I'm touched by it in any way- Nausea- refusal might be and might remain my first and only reaction here (GB would find that okay) whereas the painting of Alex Katz has touched me in some way.

  2. "Frank Auerbach"- I know him very well- from the story of W. G. Sebald "Max Aurach" in "The Emigrants", but i nthe E>nglish edition Sebald has changed the name of the painter in Max Ferber! Rom 3 has interested me in a special way- the story of Sebald and the special kind and function of art there has moved me deeply!

  3. ""Frank Auerbach"- I know him very well"- sorry, what a nonsense! -fiction is fiction and not identical with reality, but what is reality?- in any case the description of WGS is so intense and impressive that I did mean I did know him!

  4. I agree that it isn't a picture to be touched by, they are very cold and clinical, but when you see them, they have a strange beauty too - so much so that people say they want to eat them - and that GB finds really strange! I like the mixture of attraction and repulsion and cannot deny he is a big influence on my own work. I am struggling to read Vertigo by Sebald at the moment - I think the only problem is that I spend all day with heavy text and need something lighter to relax ;o)

  5. I find Katz problematical, a lot of his work almost descends into illustration, but then so much is lost in reproduction it is hard without seeing the painting. I am fond of the image I posted, but wouldn't say he touched me like say Munch.