How to Improve the World: 60 years of British Art, Arts Council Collection: Hayward Gallery, London
"Like a number of my paintings in the 1990s, Decline and Fall (1995) is based on a detail of a painting by Frank Auerbach of J.Y.M. (Juliet Yardley Mills, who the artist painted over 70 times), but in my work, Auerbach’s thick impasto brush-marks are rendered perfectly flat and photorealist. The overriding mood of the 1990s was that ‘painting is dead’; conceptual art and photography had killed it. I – like many fellow artists – had been impressed by the ways in which Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter’s painted pop had hit photography head-on. If painting was, in fact, dead then what better place for a young artist brought up on the isolated flatlands of Norfolk with a liking for gothic horror to be than in its morgue? Pulling out books from a library shelf was like pulling out the recorded lives of the irrelevant, the ignored and the deceased. Auerbach’s paintings seemed to have a ready atmosphere of the graveyard. My slowly painted detail encapsulates the flesh of the figure like a painstaking autopsy.
"It was important to me that the painting was figurative. I had made similar paintings that were more abstract but – without the notion that a real living and breathing figure had once existed and been immortalized in paint – the idea of representing death seemed less close. I wanted the figure to breathe down the back of your neck, to be – although not exactly alive – always present. J.Y.M. has been buried by successive layers of representation. First painted, then photographed, then printed in a book, then painted again, and now, no doubt, photographed and printed once again in the pages of this book.
"My title Decline and Fall obviously refers to Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88). Complete changes of scale interest me. Relating the life of a whole empire to that of one individual is an absurdity meant to highlight one’s existentialist isolation. Physical and mental decline following a fall is a fear that becomes increasingly present as we age.
"With this merciless conceptual form of painting there was little need for sketches. I took some time working out where to crop the image to achieve a slightly awkward, unbalanced feel. I also heightened the colours to add to the paintings putrefied sensibility.
"Of course, it turned out that painting was not so dead after all and I became bored with the limits of photorealism soon after this painting dried. There was so much more to look forward to when making a painting, and so many more ways to entice the eye than mere copying. I do, however, find its directness of intent an interesting statement, and I am still intrigued that I made it."
Glenn Brown (August 2014)