The Living Flesh and the Dead Flesh

Glenn Brown, Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis) after Chris Foss , 1996

Chris Foss, The Stars Like Dust, 1986

Lynn MacRitchie: Let’s take your early choices of artists to work with, Salvador Dalí or sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss. These are the classic, teenage boys’ favorite paintings. There’s a kind of weird, queasy eroticism in those images, it seems to me. In Dalí, of course, there’s a huge erotic element, and I’ve always found the science fiction images erotic in a strange way. Now, in your more recent works, a sort of fleshiness seems to be actually manifesting itself, especially in the pieces you refer to as your “abstract” paintings.

Glenn Brown: Obviously with the works based on Dalí and the earlier ones based on Auerbach, there’s something directly erotic, and also with Foss, who, incidentally, illustrated The Joy of Sex. All of these earlier paintings were far more direct copies of the source material; there was less of me in them. As I said, with the more recent paintings there’s generally a much greater adaptation of the source material, which I abandon quickly and just carry on with the painting. It’s often difficult to recognize what they were based on because so much of the original has been changed, or tiny parts of a particular painting have been used and then altered very dramatically. But whether that makes the painting more me or not, I’m not sure—because I love the notion of appropriation, and the fact that we can’t escape appropriation. All of the knowledge of all of the art we’ve ever seen is with us when we paint, or when I paint. Whether I choose to or not, I may appropriate artists’ styles and marks and color combinations. Fleshy is a good word to use because these paintings are very much about the discrepancy between the brush mark and flesh, and often the relationship between living and dead flesh as well. A lot of the colors are quite repellent, and the rather tormented, irritating surface has a degree of unpleasantness about it. I suppose that’s my gothic, adolescent self still there, peering through Foss and Dalí! Even when I paint flowers, they always come out rather unpleasant and smelly looking.

Chris Foss, Futuristic Oil Tanker, [a.k.a. Red Oil Tanker] 1970.

Glenn Brown, Exercise One (For Ian Curtis) After Chris Foss, 1995.

LM: There has always been something very powerful and disturbing in the way you paint. I was struck by it when I first saw your work in the show curated by Rear Window, in Richard Salmon’s studio in 1994. For me, it’s becoming more manifest now, for example, in the vase-of-flowers paintings, which are much more about the physicality of the actual performance of painting, if I could describe it like that.

GB: The painting On Hearing of the Death of My Mother [2002], which is based on a Renoir vase of flowers, was painted at the same time as a work called Kill Yourself, based on the same Renoir. They were trying to be as deeply unpleasant as I could make them, and I don’t know why! I wasn’t fantastically unhappy at the time, I have to say. Art is theater and theater isn’t real life—it’s an exaggeration of real life; it’s what makes people engage with something. You don’t go to the opera because you want to see a supermarket; you go because you want to see grand themes played out, at a grand emotional level, heightened emotions, and that operatic sense is what I want in the work. The emotional level has gone up to near maximum.

LM: And to use the word you used earlier, “appropriation,” I think that in your early days you kind of appropriated that theatricality, that operatic quality, from people like Chris Foss, or John Martin—surely the master of operatic painting. But now that desire to create a sort of spectacle, a sort of grandeur, seems to me to be coming from inside the paintings instead of being copied from outside, if that makes sense.

GB: I think that does some of the early paintings a slight injustice, in that the Foss paintings never look like my versions of them. Mine are always played around with. The colors are altered, the cities were redrawn and I was always inventing things to increase their intensity right from the start. Even 16 years ago I was playing with the images to increase that sense of the Gothic. It was partially there in Chris Foss’s work, but not in quite the same way. All the while I was sort of learning what you can do, learning different techniques from other people. But I never want to lose that notion of appropriation—people say to me, sooner or later you’ll stop copying other artists and you’ll make work of your own, but it’s never been my point to try to do that, because I never thought you ever could. The work is always going to be based on something, and I wanted to make the relationship with art history as obvious as possible. Again, I think it increases the intensity of the way that people look at things…”

Text: Lynn MacRitchie, “Interview: Glenn Brown”, Art In America, April 3, 2009.

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