What with the continued reports of her demise and subsequent reinvigoration, it's hard not to imagine the geriatric art form as a patient on "ER," bleeding on a gut-splattered gurney as a crowd of doctors -- or art critics -- huddle over her limp and sallow carcass with defibrillator paddles.
"Clear!" someone shouts, as the patient's chest heaves upward in one last rag-doll spasm of life.
Whether or not they get a pulse (or whether the patient remains in a persistent, vegetative state), depends, to a large degree, on whether you think she was ever sick in the first place.
Cecily Brown, by all accounts, does not.
To hear the British-born, New York-based artist talk about her work -- on exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in a small show of part-figurative, part-abstract canvases that are by turns seductive, frenetic, academic, explosive, exhibitionistic, hermetic, mature and sophomoric -- painting is more than a bit like wrestling. And the opponent is formidable.
"I would often ask myself, 'Who's winning, me or the painting?,' " says Brown about the combative process of creating "Hoodlum," a large canvas whose eruption of hot pinks and fleshly peaches suggest a riot of taffeta barely obscuring a flash of thigh. "I sometimes thought, 'It had to be beaten.' "
Although Brown feels guilty about using the word "struggle" to describe her art, it's clear that there is one clash, or several, going on. Most obviously, there's the battle between abstraction and representation. In addition to body parts -- including the imprints of her own breasts and lips in "Dogday Afternoon" -- Brown incorporates landscape elements in "Bacchanal" and the shadowy forms of a pair of sexually aroused male rabbits in an untitled painting from 1997. Then there's also the internal struggle between her affinity for pink (the color of skin, to be sure, but also of lip gloss and baby doll clothes), which plays a tug-of-war against some of her more monastic color selections. "Dogday Afternoon," ironically, is almost all black-and-white, yet its sensuality is arguably the most in-your-face.
Perhaps what's most paradoxical in Brown's art is something that, for lack of a better word, I can only describe as a kind of girlishness. Brown's unabashedly feminine palette, her first-name-only signature (evoking a kind of high-school yearbook aesthetic), the high-rent strip tease performed by every half-hidden bosom and pink cheeked derriere -- all these things pull against -- some might even say undermine -- the robust machismo associated traditionally with abstract expressionism and the art-world boy's-club mentality that the museum establishment still fosters.
While Brown readily acknowledges "stealing" from such painters as Yves Klein and Willem de Kooning, both of whom also explored what she calls "the space between abstraction and figuration," the artist believes there's plenty of fight left in her chosen medium -- as well as her choice of tried-and-true subject matter. "You have to pick a subject you can really get your teeth into," she says of her admittedly carnal obsessions. "In all its forms," she says, "flesh and the body seem right for paint."
Thankfully, there's nothing all that pretty about Brown's art, which she calls a "record of ambivalence." Sure, her paint-smeared surfaces are often wet and slippery, as sexy/silly as the remnants of a Jell-O wrestling contest, but those marks on the canvas -- stains, really, of a battle royal that is still being fought with a beast that just won't die -- could just as easily be read as blood on the mat as lipstick.
DIRECTIONS: CECILY BROWN -- Through March 2 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza). 202-357-2700 (TDD: 202-357-1729). www.si.edu/hirshhorn. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Free.