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The link between ornament, decoration and visual seduction can be dated back to antiquity. Ancient critics reviled ornament for its ability to hide faults in the underlying form, which needed to be displayed in an unadorned state to emphasise its purity. This argument addressed art and architecture as much as speech, music or even women's make-up. The emerging dichotomy (ornament equals seduction and treachery; lack of ornament equals honesty and moral rectitude) was compounded during the Enlightenment, where philosophers such as Diderot felt compelled to choose between two mutually exclusive paths: a life of licentious hedonism as a libertine, or the path of moral righteousness as an home sensible. 1
Early twentieth century modern architects Le Corbusier and Amedee Ozenfant continued this quest for purity, rejecting the fashionable and over-decorated schemes of the previous century which appeared suffocating and retrograde in the face of the new era of industry. In an attempt to link architecture and life, the domestic interior was developed as a 'machine for living in', and the new, pared-back forms were later accompanied by the phrase 'less is more'.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries visual artists have revisited the seductive powers of decoration in a positive way that distinguishes the new artistic practice from the previous modernist ideology and offers an alternative voice that resonates with overt sensuality. From the work of Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter's Orlando, to Cindy Sherman's photographs of sumptuous, neo-baroque scenes from art history, the retina, and the intellect, has been stimulated in a way that had not been experienced for a century. Imagery, enriched with an abundance of texture and pattern, applied with ornamentation that became so overwhelming as to be almost an emotional substance, left the viewer reeling and gasping for air.
Julie Reeves's recent paintings allude to the problems of morality and decorum that an overly decorative scheme presents. Reeves chose the perfect visual subject for her work ornamental decorative devices-in particular the sumptuous, elegant fripperies that were produced in abundance in the nineteenth century. Many of these patterns are still produced today, and can be found in 'Liberty' prints, the British design house favoured by the upper middle classes, whose patterns stand for visual seduction, charm and intellectual death. The exhibition title, 'susceptible', suggests movement from one state to another under the right (or wrong) circumstances. The titles of Reeves's paintings follow this theme, intention, demand, subsume, concede: all refer to a relational position, a slipperiness of being, of flux and uncertainty, of some latent treachery. In several paintings Reeves has used the stylised acanthus leaves of antiquity and the fleur-de-lis of the French Ancient Regime amongst other, less illustrious flora. All are painted larger than life, or alternatively, painted on canvases smaller than required for such theatrically enlarged details, implying that her subject has been cropped, or we are already peering into a microcosm. With some of Reeves's earlier paintings, specifically the more heavily varnished works such as subsume or instigate, one is drawn into an eerie space created by the use of heavy shadows and undulating forms, a situation that is then reversed by her use of a slick, lacquered finish that reflects the room behind and offers a post-modern version of sensuality. The surface is so smooth, that any touch would mark it and shatter its illusion. lt is as if the image, and the domain of sensuality the image implies, hovers somewhere behind a surface that has been created to rebuff.
The artist's later, larger paintings take the physical aspect of the painted surface a step further, with similarly delicate, but now ghostly, stylised ornamentation painted onto a more pronounced surface-a textured blanket, a padded canvas-where the underlying form sits uncomfortably with the delicate tracery of the image. A tension is thus set up between decoration and form, where the underlying form, normally the privileged component in modernist ideology, has itself a textured surface, or a swelling, at odds with the severe elegance of the illusionistic decoration.
Reeves's later mixed media work intention reverses this disquieting separation, as the surface and the image merge together, and both are transparent. No 'image' remains to provide a comfort zone in which to become immersed, and the problem of beautiful decoration suggests another philosophical dilemma. For, in intention Reeves has dripped transparent emulsion onto an equally transparent surface, producing an image that is only realised, as Plato suggested, by creating mere 'shadows on the wall '.
1. Denis Diderot. Oeuvres Completes, 11, p. 152