Florence Reekie: Sumptuary Laws 24th November 2023 – 26th November 2023 MAMA 10 Greatorex Street London, E1 5NF
MAMA is pleased to present Sumptuary Laws, an exhibition of a new body of work by Florence Reekie. Drawing on the European artistic tradition of exploring universal human values, Reekie’s recent work forefronts the delightful yet decadent qualities of fabric as a way to reflect on the broader impact that globalization and consumer culture have had on virtue hierarchies in the contemporary age.
Reekie’s approach to painting brings technical mastery to a distinctly tactile and quasi-fetishistic subject matter in a way that defies straightforward interpretation. A modern love-child of Botticelli and the Baroque, the artist uses smooth brushstrokes to create indulgent, painterly portraits of velvet, silk, and suede. The luxury of materials being the central figure in the works inverts classical compositions, where drapery was used as a backdrop for bodies or as means of adding movement to the canvas. Instead, Reekie gives drapery center stage exposure where the texture of its fabric takes on an entirely new resonance.
Addressing themes of morality and guilt within the context of conspicuous consumption, Reekie’s charged canvases demonstrate an urgent contemporary relevance. Using layerings of opulent fabrics as a symbol of excess, she wants the viewer to consider the possible repercussions of extravagance present in much of today’s lifestyle culture. The title of the show, Sumptuary Laws, refers to a list of regulations introduced in the 16th century ‘for the purpose of restraining luxury and extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures for apparel, food, or furniture’. For Reekie, this is an interesting concept to examine today, when the moral tension between pleasure or desire and moral responsibility holds higher stakes than possibly ever before.
In a world sentenced to an imminent climate catastrophe, we have to make sacrifices.The works in the show are unique in that they have been painted entirely on material offcuts. This adds a meta element to the show both in the doubling of subject matter as well as the unity of content and form within a sustainability context. Likewise, there is a clever irony to painting fabric on fabric, made more powerful still by the works’ overwhelmingly monochromatic compositions. Silk on silk, cream on cream, velvet on velvet, black on black. Not to mention that painting on black is particularly difficult, demanding from the artist a deep understanding of light from which the final image can emerge. Reekie’s skillful use of chiaroscuro, seen not least in You’re the one that I want or It’s not too much, is it?, thus gives the works a wonderfully cinematic quality.
Similarly to Michael Borremans, who reappropriates Baroque traditions to portray the dark recesses of the human soul, Reekie draws on a variety of elements from Renaissance portraiture to 17th- and 18th-century still-lifes so as to explore the often toxic significance assigned to appearances and status in contemporary identity formation processes. Just how much are we willing to overlook beauty and rank? A recurring subject throughout the show, the decorative silk ribbon – many already outlandish rococo outfits were adorned with ribbons, as often seen in depictions of Marie Antoinette – carries allegorical significance.
In Orwell’s Animal Farm we see Mollie, a bourgeois white horse, exchanging her freedom in return for sugar cubes and ribbons in her hair. To Reekie, this is the quintessence of a modern reality where image is valued over virtue – a sociological change brought upon by the growing ubiquity of digital media.
Reekie thrives in mystery and quietly relishes in a subtly sinister and strange darkness that emanates from the works’ sultry veneer. Hopelessly devoted to you and The one I need are uncanny portraits of gloves, white satin and black leather respectively, where the hand as a subject is entirely redacted from the composition. With hands being famously challenging to paint, gloves make an interesting, almost surrealist choice for a main character. Whether solemn and ceremonial, or charged with eroticism, gloves possess a menacing quality. They imply a degree of dissociation, they’re dangerously sanitary, they prevent the frisson of touch and preserve modesty.
The artist’s monochrome oscillations in these works create a surprising tension between the seductive yet frightening nature of black – a color associated both with power and death – and the virtuous, innocent, chaste qualities of white, where the colour opposites appear equally ominous to the viewer. The lavish layering of white carries a ghostly aura; there is an element of despair and hopelessness to the way the invisible hands hold onto the sumptuous string of silk. The eeriness of black is different. ‘Black is, par excellence, the colourless colour of fetishes,’ writes French Philosopher Alain Badiou in his iconic book Black: On the brilliance of a non-colour – in Sumptuary Laws, these are commodities.
Florence Reekie: Sumptuary Laws opens on the 24th November 2023 until the 26th November 2023 at MAMA
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