The paintings in room one of Glenn Brown’s exhibition at Tate Liverpool are versions of sci-fi sublime: science fiction landscapes with cities on planets, swirling gas-clouds and nebulae with space stations. These are huge wall-sized canvases; often enlarged from small air-brush cartoons in sci-fi magazines. Brown’s debts to the romantic sublime of John Martin are openly acknowledged in the painting’s titles. But these first paintings are not the focus of this show.
The bulk of the paintings here are portraits, and these are remarkable pictures. Brown appears to work with a thick impasto brush work with the oil daubed onto the canvas; he ‘appears’ to work like this but close-to the surface of the picture is quite smooth and matt. The portraits are done in swathes of paint: the forms of nose, cheeks and chin emerging from Brown’s amazing control of perspective and chiaroscuro. In addition, Brown creates extraordinary backgrounds sometimes night skies, sometimes pure colours, greys and blues manipulated with ariel perspective. These backgrounds thrust the portraits out at the viewer. One such is ‘The Holy Virgin’ from 2003, in which a sad clown’s face, and a happy clown’s face emerge from an swirling mass of yellows, reds and white, with a perfect, air-brushed, pink nose for each clown.
Brown often creates series of paintings using different palettes and subtly different perspectives. One group, ‘New Dawn Fades’, ‘Little Death’, ‘The Marquis of Bredalbane’ and ‘The Real Thing’, is based on the same Frank Auerbach head and shoulders. And Brown has a lovely way of both holding line and blurring it at the edge of the head – where the hair meets the background. In this series, the eyes and nostrils are strikingly simple, black absences in the face.
The most striking portrait in the collection, ‘Hunky Dory’ from 2005, is a head and shoulders that harks back to the Dutch masters. The colour palette is limited to blues and white with a stark blue background. Brown creates the delicacy of a care-worn old man with white hair and white beard that contains much pathos.
A problem is that Brown’s work draws the viewer’s eye to its technique in a relentless, somewhat cloying way. The technique is so bravura and so achieved that it leaves the viewer’s imagination very little room for manoeuvre. There is some welcome relief in room seven where what the exhibition notes call ‘anthropomorphic’ blobs explore a much more ambiguous and ambivalent view of the human figure, where the relationship between eye and orifice is more strangely suggested, where, from the latter, roses may grow.
Better, perhaps, to cross the city to the Walker Art Gallery, where Maggi Hambling’s ‘George Always: portraits of George Melly’ is a wonderful, vibrant commemoration of the last years, death and beyond of ‘Good Time’ George. Hambling’s portraits show a swaggering, yet infinitely sensitive man in his range of mad ties, as his braces barely keep his embonpoint from bursting over his trousers. The best of these is a large picture of Melly dancing with the figure of his beloved Bessie Smith behind him and, in front, a slightly crumpled, seated Melly, decked out in the robes of his honorary doctorate from Liverpool John Moores University.
These are lovely, warm portraits, including a beautiful series in pen and ink of ‘George Reading’, ‘George Sleeping’ etc., and Hambling’s imaginings of Melly’s entrance to Heaven – a whisky in one hand and a cigarette in the other. In comparison to Hambling’s other series of portraits of the dead and dying, of her mother and her ‘muse’ Henrietta Moraes, these are executed in a wide and vivid primary palette; deeply, deeply moving testaments to what must have been a profound friendship.