Since the early 1990s, Glenn Brown has been engaged in a kind of Romantic necrophilia, resuscitating the expired painterly bodies of Surrealist Salvador Dalí, sci-fi illustrator Chris Foss, and British postwar Expressionist painter Frank Auerbach, among others. In each case, Brown has appropriated images of their works, either in part or in whole, from reproductions of the original paintings that he has found in books. He then meticulously and obsessively copies the images onto canvas, being sure to erase all traces of his own gestural brushstrokes. His version of an Auerbach, for example, appears from afar to be as tumultuous and thickly impastoed as the original; on closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that Brown is a master of trompe l’oeil. The textured surfaces of his source paintings are rendered in hyperreal near-flatness, the result of a painstaking and time-consuming technical process he developed for the purpose. He also sometimes crops his source images, changes their colors, or skews their perspectives. This gap between his “night of the living dead” (the title of one of his early works) and their original daylight counterparts instills his work with an underlying sense of Romantic longing.
Brown’s quotation and subsequent transformation of these source paintings is not, however, simply another instance of postmodern irony. Unlike the strategies of photographic appropriation practiced by a previous generation of artists, including Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine, Brown’s works—each of which often takes up to five months to complete—have an intensely laborious, almost lovingly handcrafted quality. In fact, in a certain sense, his paintings give a new meaning to Robert Smithson’s invocation of Vladimir Nabokov’s assertion that “the future is but the obsolete in reverse,” as Brown works backward through many mediated layers of the reproduction of these paintings in order to put them back onto the canvas by hand. As he explains, “In all of [my sources], there was originally a model sitting in a chair in the studio who gets characterized by that artist. He finishes it and it gets photographed. Then the photograph gets turned into a print, which gets put into a book. I get that book and do my painting from it. Through those stages, the original person gets further and further back. Further and further lost, further removed. The whole notion that there was a character underneath the image kept me wanting to do them. It was that sense of loss, as if they were ghosts.”1
Brown’s You Never Touch My Skin in the Way You Did and You’ve Even Changed the Way You Kiss Me (1994) is based on an Auerbach painting of 1983, Head of Julia, which Brown found reproduced in a gallery catalogue.2 His doppelgänger Auerbach focuses only on a central portion of the head featured in the original, greatly enlarging it while changing and intensifying its colors. Like all of Brown’s work, it is as much a meditation on our relationship to memory as it is on the act of painting itself. He once likened his painterly program to the planet in Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction film Solaris (1972), which resurrected replicant versions of dead people from the memories of the living. As the artist has suggested, “I’m bringing things which aren’t real back into a state of physically being there. The sadness is that these things know they’re not real.”3
Douglas Fogle, “Interview with Glenn Brown,” in Richard Flood, ed., “Brilliant!” New Art from London, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), 16. ↩
Brown borrowed the title—itself a poignant metaphor for his project—from a 1989 song by pop singer Lisa Stansfield. ↩
Fogle, “Interview with Glenn Brown,” 17. ↩