Cecily Brown - Contemporary Art Day Sale New York Friday, May 16, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Gagosian Gallery, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    “Everything was there, confused and topsy-turvy, the red and yellow flames, the smoke, bellying in the wind, the white-hot stacks, hollow and canting, the farm and the barn and our little black figures like mommets in the tumult.”
    Chapter 2 of Precious Bane by Mary Webb, published in 1924

    Set against the pastoral expanse of England just after the Napoleonic Wars, Mary Webb’s fifth novel Precious Bane concerns the blight of a woman born with a cleft lip, and her struggle to gain loving acceptance in a small-minded community. While many of Cecily Brown’s paintings take their titles from the golden age of Hollywood, the present lot is an anomaly, drawing its label from a gorgeous turn of phrase buried within the dense text of a rural drama. But given this direct reference, Mommets in the Tumult, 2008 becomes illuminated, dancing with the passion of the characters inherent to text and, as a consequence, becoming a rare contemporary Expressionistic masterpiece, alive with subtext and figure yet brimming with a wide array of painterly aesthetics.

    The female protagonist of Precious Bane, Prue Sarn, confronts a variety of painful rebukes for her physical deformity, yet her inner beauty is without question, as is eventually recognized by her romantic opposite, Kester Woodseaves. But Gideon, the brother of Prue, who aims for power and influence, contents himself with the fashioning of black paper puppets, also known as “mommets” in the novel. These small dolls are described by Webb as stand-ins for the characters themselves, awash in a sea of passions yet unable to act upon their impulses.

    Indeed, the present lot captures a marvelous array of human emotion in its lustrous and thick brushstrokes, evoking the tragic and ecstatic essence of the human condition. Covered in the full diversity of the chromatic spectrum, Brown’s linen canvas glows with an incredible floral power—its creams, pinks, and reds dominating the central arena of the picture. Within the minutiae of the bold strokes of color, we find bits of figural suggestion: a rush of water runs down the right-center of the painting, a wizard-like figure to its left winking at the viewer from an abstract dimension. These lighter shades make each stroke resemble a blossoming flower, an oil-based petal reminiscent of Joan Mitchell’s early work.

    Simultaneously, Brown details her expansive universe with dark elements near the borders of the picture. Above, shades of black interrupt the vital rose and cream patches, inserting death into the midst of a richly vibrant group of colors. In addition, in the right quadrant, Brown creates flames from a descending jet of bright yellow, threatening all the delicacy that surrounds it. This figure echoes the imagery from the work’s eponymous passage, evoking the realization in the viewer that human feeling is as vulnerable as the paper puppets sharing space with the rising flames.

    Brown’s manner of painting, a modern take on Abstract Expressionism, has been cited for its rich sexual and erotic content, even within the context of an abstract painting. Her ability to conjure up to the most base of desires is a testament to her simultaneous passion and subtlety, the power of the former giving way to the intricate result of the latter. Mommets in the Tumult, 2008 bears both of these trademark qualities, in both its rich canvas bursting with the frenzy of its commencement and in its narrative capabilities even amidst an abstraction of figurative representation.

    Webb’s novel concludes with Prue’s escape, along with Kester, to a reality of their own, independent of the judgment of Prue’s provincial community. And perhaps this is the conclusion we can find in Brown’s piece as well: that, even despite the ever-fragile nature of human emotion, we can find strength in forging our own path. In Mommets in the Tumult, 2008, Cecily Brown’s path is simple but courageous: to be raw and true.



Mommets in the Tumult

oil on linen
45 x 41 in. (114.3 x 104.1 cm.)
Signed and dated "Cecily Brown 2008" on the reverse.

$450,000 - 550,000 

Contact Specialist
Amanda Stoffel
Head of Day Sale
+1 212 940 1261

Contemporary Art Day Sale

New York 16 May 2014 11am