I’ll never forget my first encounter with a Glenn Brown painting. It was in 1992, when I happened upon Dalí-Christ — a nine-foot-high version of Salvador Dalís Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (1936), which measures only three and a half feet square. It was in his graduation show at Goldsmiths, the London college that a few years earlier had produced Damien Hirst and such other YBAs (Young British Artists) as Michael Landy and Sarah Lucas.The school was famous for its conceptual approach, yet even though most of his peers considered painting irrevocably dead, Brown persisted in the medium.
Illuminated by the harsh glare of neon lights, Dalí-Christ seemed kitsch as well as confrontational. To heighten the melodrama, Brown had stretched the disjointed limbs of the grotesque central figure and made the colors sweeter — injecting Dalí’s monster with a robust vitality and transforming the scene into titillating spectacle. Clearly this was not a case of straightforward appropriation, but something more complicated: an act of pillage, but also a perverse homage.
I visited Brown recently in his east London studio, an airy, light-filled space in a former Victorian school, and asked him about the work. "I painted it from a bad color reproduction," he recalls. "At the time I was influenced by Sherrie Levine and the idea of the simulacrum, of the real versus the fake. I chose Surrealism, because it was a detailed but fake realism, and I liked the idea that you could appropriate someone’s subconscious nightmares."
He has continued to work from reproductions ever since. "I pick images that have something missing," he tells me. "There’s a purposeful impoverishment in living via secondhand information in a world of videos, computers, films." One of his favorite sources is the portraiture of the 78-year-old Frank Auerbach, whose frenetic brushmarks exemplify a belief in the expressive potential of paint. Using fine sable brushes, he translates Auerbach’s juicy paintwork into trompe l’oeil equivalents, inert parodies of painterly fluency.When he was short-listed for the Turner Prize in 2000, Brown showed an epic painting of a spaceship titled The Loves of Shepherds. The eleven-by-seven-foot canvas is based on Tony Robertss illustration for the jacket of Robert A. Heinleins science fiction novel Double Star. Roberts decided to sue him for breach of copyright, but Brown remains unrepentant. "To make something up from scratch is nonsensical," he argues. "Images are a language. It’s impossible to make a painting that is not borrowed — even the images in your dreams refer to reality."
Recently, he has turned his attention to historical artists, modifying the source image to the point where it’s scarcely recognizable. In God Speed to a Great Astronaut (2007), the rosy flesh of a Fragonard nude has become a ferment of putrid green brushwork suggesting a body riddled with syphilis, while the surrounding cupids morph into reptilian swirls. In a painting depicting apples he is clearly referencing — despite the distorted perspectives and heightened color — the Courbet still life Red Apples at the Foot of a Tree (1872). "I scanned [the Courbet] into Photoshop, then flattened it and changed the colors," says Brown. "I realized I could do it all on a computer and project the image onto the canvas to draw round it. The first stage is like painting by numbers. The second phase is more interesting, because I no longer look to the original; all the decisions about texture and color are made then."
Where do the intensified hues come from? "I’ll thumb through a book to see if anything jumps out. At the moment I’m using colors from Kirchners painting Potsdammer Platz; I love his sickly, artificial limelight colors. Nolde is also very good. His colors are much brighter — the volume is turned up."
Books and catalogues line one wall of the studio from floor to ceiling; in front of them, state-of-the-art computers monopolize a large desk. You could easily mistake this impeccably tidy space for someone’s office were it not for the old-fashioned easel and paint trolley in one corner and the several unfinished paintings hanging on the adjacent walls. On the easel is a nude painted in flesh tones, which reveals how Brown starts a painting. A catalogue is open to a Delacroix study of a Nereid by Rubens. In his interpretation, Brown has tilted the body into a more dynamic pose and zoomed in to eliminate the head; otherwise, his figure is an exact copy — of a reproduction of a copy — except that a horrible monochromatic growth is creeping up the figure like a thick pelt of curling hair. A few weeks later, it will cover the entire body and be tinged with lurid colors, rendering the work’s source material barely recognizable when I see it at the artist’s Tate Liverpool retrospective.
As a stroll through the exhibition reveals, Brown’s paintings become more disquietingly weird as they diverge further and further from their origins. Can he envisage jettisoning the reproductions altogether? "Definitely not," he replies. "I need to have a conversation with something in the real world, otherwise I’d become too self-absorbed. I see images as part of the urban landscape, something in the air, and I like things that have already had something thrust upon them by someone else. It would be very dull to make a painting that didn’t refer to something that preexisted it."
Glenn Brown’s retrospective is on view at Tate Liverpool through May 10 and at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin, from May 28-Oct. 4.
"Putrid Beauty" originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' May 2009 Table of Contents.