A real scene stealer: Glenn Brown's 'second-hand' art is the subject of a Tate retrospective

Jonathan Brown
Monday 16 February 2009 01:00 GMT

A lot of people want to lick or even eat Glenn Brown's paintings. It is a permanent source of puzzlement and wry amusement to the artist because some of those pieces that seem to get the digestive juices flowing most freely are those in which he has gone out of his way to create a "toxic foul smelling lump."

Perhaps it is not surprising then that the many collectors and critics around the world who have developed an artistic taste for Brown's work have devised some delicious ways of describing his unique interpretation of the history of painting. As if El Greco had listened to Joy Division is one view. Another imagines that Fragonard had become hooked on the novels of Isaac Asimov. For those as yet unfamiliar with the artist, the sci-fi analogy is a useful starting point. Brown, who cuts a donnish figure with his neatly trimmed beard, glasses and corduroy jacket, became enmeshed in one of the ugliest rows ever to hit the Turner Prize. In 2000 one of his vast canvases, The Loves of the Shepherds, was "revealed" to be an appropriation – albeit rendered in stunning Old-Master style – from a book jacket by the illustrator Anthony Roberts for the 1974 Robert A. Heinlein novel Double Star.

Arriving at Tate Liverpool this week where he was helping install the 60 paintings and sculptures (including Shepherds) that will form the largest retrospective of his work ever assembled, he still shudders at the memory.

"It was not amusing at the time. For two years afterwards it was very miserable," he recalls. "It was an extraordinarily expensive thing. I had just bought a house and I nearly lost it because of it. It gave me a great deal of cynicism for lawyers. They were the only ones that profited. The illustrator involved did not profit out of it but the lawyers had a fun time," he says.

"I know it was the Turner Prize, and therefore you expect something like that to happen. It is not what I wanted to happen. To me it was the wrong kind of publicity."

Appropriation is at the heart of Brown's work. He painstakingly recreates images borrowed from both high art and popular culture. Favourite subjects remain the work of Frank Auerbach, but also Salvador Dali, Rembrandt and the apocalyptic Northumberland painter John Martin.

But the pieces are far from mere reproductions. Brown stretches distorts and manipulates his chosen image – colours are amplified, turned putrid or rendered kitsch by the "callous use of lime green and pink" creating an entirely new visual and emotional experience for the observer. The often heavy impasto of artists such as Auerbach is rendered utterly flat prompting some to wrongly believe the painting has been sprayed.

To appreciate the scale of Brown's work, the virtuosity of his technique, the way that he dilutes the paint so thinly, painstakingly adding the shadows of the impasto to create a mirror-smooth image on canvas or just the sheer playfulness – and hidden menace – of the subjects he chooses, it is advised to witness them "in the flesh". For, Brown admits, it is the great irony that while his paintings start life as reproductions they often fail on the printed page or computer screen.

Brown, 42, will perhaps forever be associated with the generation of Young British Artists to prosper under Charles Saatchi. Having graduated from Bath College in 1985, he went on to study for a Masters at Goldsmiths, where Damien Hirst et al had just been on the undergraduate programme. It was a defining period in his evolution as an artist, he recalls.

"By the time I went there they had all left. But when I moved to London I was very aware of them and what they had done," he says. Brown exhibited along with the YBAs at Saatchi's Boundary Road gallery and took part in the epoch-defining Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997 – though, to his mind, this was somewhat "after the event".

"I never considered myself to be part of a group. It was more to do with the differences between people," he says.

Yet there is an unmistakably British dimension to Brown's work, as anyone who has seen his depiction as Pope Innocent X after Velázquez of The Fall's quixotic lead singer Mark E Smith can testify. Brown admits he "unabashedly" raids the Great British songbook of the 1980s appropriating lyrics for the titles of his paintings from artists including The Fall, Joy Division and The Smiths. But it goes deeper than that. "Whilst painting I listen to all sorts of music. It is inevitable that I hear a piece and think 'I want that attitude in my painting'.

It may seem perverse that so much effort should go into recreating images that already exist but it remains Brown's primary fascination. "As far as I'm concerned I'm painting things from real life. Like a painter going out and painting the landscape and the buildings, these paintings that I use do already exist and they are part of my life, my education and my way of understanding the world is through art," he says.

"I know huge parts of the world only by what I have seen film of or read about. Second-hand information is massively important. First-hand information in many ways is less important. I just wanted to highlight that," he adds.

Brown does not really know what his chief "subject" Auerbach makes of his work. The pair have met, briefly, though they have corresponded by letter. "As far as he is concerned it is part of the process."

As for Salvador Dali, the subject of several major pieces in the retrospective, Brown describes him as "a genius" if a "bit of a buffoon" whose neglect by the mainstream art world remains an act of snobbery. But there is one image that Brown does not like to share – that of his own. He declines to be photographed and rarely gives interviews. "I prefer people to concentrate on the work I make which I think is far more interesting than anything which I am prepared to say or do," he says.

Glenn Brown, Tate Liverpool, 20 February to 10 May (www.tate.org.uk)

Reader offer

Readers of 'The Independent' can book two tickets for the price of one if they book with the Tate Ticket Office before 22 February. Call 0151 702 7400 and quote Independent Glenn Brown Offer.

There is also an exclusive event for Independent readers on 26 March. Enjoy an exclusive drinks reception at Tate Liverpool, speak to the curator and then enjoy the exhibition and the Late at Tate programme. Tickets are limited and priced £12 plus booking fees (0151 702 7400).

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