In Defense of Artist, Glenn Brown

Glenn Brown,

Glenn Brown, “Beautification”.

You got the wrong man! I don’t agree at all with the rationale behind the fistfuls of shit being hurled at Glenn Brown for his paintings based on the paintings of others. First lets look at the attack which appeared in Scientific American, of all places, titled, How Plagiarized Art Sells for Millions. The author, Glendon Mellow, shared a pic of two paintings, side by side, one by sci-fi artist Chris Foss, and the other by Glenn Brown.

Chris Foss and Glenn Brown

Left: Book cover by Chris Foss.  Right: painting by Glenn Brown which sold for $5.7 million in an art auction. Easy to see why people are in an uproar, until one digs a little beneath the surface.

The reason I didn’t pick up a stone and hurl it myself was simply because I had the feeling, whatever was going on, that Brown painted the picture himself, which is a far, far cry from Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst hiring over a hundred assistants each to do their work for them. This guy at least copied it with his own hands. You’d think that was bad enough, but when there’s so much worse, it gives one a second to pause and weigh the rock in ones hand.

Hennesy

“Hennessy, The Civilized Way to Lay Down the Law ” by Jeff Koons. Oil inks on canvas, 45 x 60 inches. Why make a copy yourself when you can make your assistants do it and take all the credit, and the money?

Jeff Koons’ Luxury and Degradation is a series of over 20 replicas in paint of magazine advertisements. Koons’ assistants did all the work. Stop and ask yourself who couldn’t, assuming they had the money, hire other people to make laborious copies of magazine ads? The difference, some will argue, is that Koons re-contextualized an ad into the realm of fine art, whereas Brown is making a painting of another person’s painting, and taking credit for the original vision. However, a lot of art went into the advertisements in the first place, and more than Koons put into it by merely arranging to have them copied. Secondly, Brown is open about basing his paintings on other artists’ works, contemporary or classical, and isn’t trying to pass off the original subject matter as his own at all, which is why the controversial painting was titled, “Ornamental Despair (Painting for Ian Curtis) After Chris Foss”.  He’s doing something a bit like the artist (I can’t find any info on who it was at the moment) who made realistic paintings of Jackson Pollock drip paintings, because he painted his version of Foss’s book cover nearly ten feet wide. Making an enormous copy of something, yourself, changes it. This is more obvious in the example of someone making a photo-realistic painting of a Pollock, because the style of working is obviously so different. But that same difference exists in Brown’s work. For example, he makes flat, realistic renderings of thick, impasto paint.

The Creeping Flesh

“The Creeping Flesh” (Oil on canvas 22 x 20″) by Glenn Brown. It appears to be thick paint in the reproduction, but it’s a meticulous painting OF thick paint. Yes, I know it’s a take off on British painter, Frank Auerbach.

Brown reinterprets famous paintings in his own style, which can be weird to the point of the original being impossible to identify. Below you can see two of his interpretations of a Van Gogh painting of a skeleton smoking a cigarette. The third image, on the right, is so far from the original that it has its own unique quality about it.

Glenn Brown paintings after Van Gogh skeleton with cigarette

Left: “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette” by Van Gogh. Middle: “Theatre” (2006) by Glenn Brown. Right, Brown’s “Suffer Well” (2007). Both Brown’s paintings are based on the Van Gogh, but he went from odd to freakazoid in his interpretations. (graphic by me)

How Brown reinterprets original paintings is not as apparent in the reproduction of his painting of Foss’s sci-fi book cover, and because of this people have gotten carried away in their hatred of him. They don’t see that the technique and painted surface are entirely different. This is obvious in the two paintings below. Frank Auerbach‘s original is made up of thick, expressive paint strokes, whereas Brown’s version is a flat painting OF impasto brush strokes. The indebtedness to Auerbach is so blatantly obvious to people who are familiar with contemporary art, and particularly British art, that Brown doesn’t need to say the source. There’s no way he could get away with copying one of the most famous British artists of the last century. If he doesn’t explicitly name the work he used as a starting point in every title – which could become redundant because he always bases his work on someone else’s work, and everyone knows that – he flatters the viewer in letting them figure out what the source was.

Brown-and-Aurebach

Left: Frank Auerbach, “Head of J.Y.M.”, 1973. Right: Glenn Brown, “The Real Thing”, 2000. Auerbach’s painting is built up with thick impasto paint strokes, but Brown’s painting is flat and the brushstrokes are nearly invisible. It is literally a painting of a painting.

If Brown’s paintings are copies at all, they are painstaking ones usually rendered in a completely different style, and making significant changes. Part of the appeal of his work is recognizing the pieces they are based on, and then marveling at what he has done with them. Accusing Brown of plagiarism is akin to attacking someone for playing Nirvana songs with wine glasses. To miss this is to miss the whole point, and the anger directed at Brown is ironically misguided. The author of the article in Scientific American boldly declared, “I think it’s crappy fine art.” He shared someone’s Twitter message, “Yeah, this is complete bullshit. It’s not art, it’s tracing.” Meanwhile, people who read his article have taken up the crusade with vengeance. This quote appears on a website with a feature on Brown:

Glenn Brown is a thieving bastard, who steals other peoples artwork, changes a few colours, and then sells it for large sums of cash, to gullible fuckwits! He is a scumbag, and everyone in the real-world knows it! Do NOT buy Glenn Brown paiintings. Do NOT support this artist.

With the advent of Pop art and Post-Modernism artists started making copies of existing works, and just putting some, any spin on them, became THE thing to do. Has everyone forgotten Roy Lichtenstein? He made a career of producing very large paintings of comic book illustrations, and just changed them a smidgeon. His copying appears to have annoyed one guy, who created a website to showcase all the originals Lichtenstein replicated, including the captions. Below are a couple choice examples.

WHAMM2012

Lichtenstein’s painting below, and original comic illustration above.

Lichtenstein and original comic illustration

Just a kiss of borrowing here in order to transform the mundane into the miraculous.

If people are still not willing to forgive Brown for the lesser of many contemporary art evils, consider the following.

Millet and Van Gogh, Noon and Rest

Left: Millet “Noon” 1866.   Right: Van Gogh “Noon Rest from work” 1890 (graphic by me)

Probably the artist most of us might agree was the “real deal” is Van Gogh, and yet it is well-known that he made copies of other artists’ work, including a lot of copies after Jean-François Millet.

millet-and-van-gogh-2

Left: Millet, “The First Steps” 1858.  Right: Van Gogh, “First Steps” 1890. (graphic by me)

You see, there’s a long tradition of artists making interpretations, some not so loose, of the works of prior artists. It’s not really a problem unless they try to hide the fact and pass them off as purely their own vision. But Brown wasn’t doing that any more than Van Gogh was. They both acknowledged their sources openly. So, you can put your willies back in your jeans, unless of course you want to go after some rich and famous artists who deserve to be stoned. Jeff Koons has been sued for copyright infringement nearly a dozen times, and Damien Hirst has gotten in trouble for the same thing. These boys believe that whatever they touch is gold (or chrome, or diamond encrusted), and before they wave their magic fine art wand over the thing in question it is worthless. That’s why they never bother to acknowledge the people whose work they steal, or any of the skilled artists they employ to make their priceless, original masterpieces for them.

Keff Koons rips of Art Rogers

Left: Art Rogers ‘”Puppies”.  Right: Jeff Koons, “String of Puppies”. Koons never acknowledged Rogers or the sculptors he paid to make a copy of the photograph for him to take credit for.

If you wanna’ be angry at contemporary artists, go after the two richest artists in the world who each have had more than 100 artists churning out their work for them, and don’t seem to ever not be in the business of ripping someone else off, imprinting it with their own name-brand, and hiring a team of specialists to make it larger, more expensive, and more perfect. Why the hell go after a guy who respects the artists he uses for inspiration, credits them, does all his own work, and through doing these sorts of tribute paintings has developed his own unique style? Below are some of Brown’s newer images, which don’t really look quite like anything else I’ve seen before.

Glenn Brown,

Glenn Brown, “A Sailor’s Life”

17567w_internationalvelvet

Glenn Brown, “International Velvet” 2004

I can’t think of anything that really resembles the image above. Brown has gone into his own weird world of dark surrealism, and I dare say the resulting images are at least as unique as the Foss’ sci-fi stuff. Looking at these paintings, and knowing he credited Foss, and even asked permission from him to use his work, there’s not much to point a finger at, unless it’s some really peculiar images.

Glenn Brown,

Glenn Brown, “Wild Horses” (2007)

And if you can recognize the source for Brown’s paintings, it’s more like you are looking at it in a dream or nightmare.

MP0209_FDG_021

Glenn Brown, “Seventeen Seconds”

This whole controversy has made me a believer in Glenn Brown, not as a plagiarist, but as an artist who is living proof that painting, authorship, and originality are alive and squirming.

The-Art-Critic-small

~ Ends

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13 thoughts on “In Defense of Artist, Glenn Brown

  1. Great post. Good points. Since reading about Hirst and Koons on your blog, I’ve learned who the real copycats are, where the bullies hangout, and the 1% who make it that much harder for real artists to be heard, and essentially do their work.

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    1. I think you need to look at some of his newer work. He tends to make versions of versions of things until they are unrecognizable as the source. Try scrolling down to images like “Wild Horses”. I’m guessing you didn’t actually read my post. Anyway, if you wanna’ copy one of those, er, in oils, and put your own individual spin on it, I’m pretty sure Glenn Brown would think that was cool. But the way he works is meticulous and I’m guessing a royal, time consuming, pain in the ass. If you wanna’ get outraged about appropriation, look as some of the stuff Koons, Hirst, and Richard Prince do. They don’t even do the work themselves.

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  2. Part of the reason that people are so annoyed with Lichtenstein is that the artists he copied toiled in obscurity and received almost no recompense for their work. Russ Heath, for example, can barely afford to pay his rent, and the man is 89. Rights and payment struggles have been an ongoing issue in the comics industry for decades, since the beginning. If Lichtenstein had set up a fund for them or the like, he probably would be lauded by the illustration community now.

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    1. Yeah, I’m with you on that. Some artists are rewarded ridiculously for their work, and others received table scraps, or nothing. And thus it is a bit disappointing when the rich and famous artists “borrow” from the struggling artists (Damien Hirst has stolen a lot of ideas from struggling artists), make a mint off of it, and share none of the proceeds with the people whose work made theirs possible.

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