Florence Reekie is a self-taught artist who lives and works in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is one of the three artists featured in the current STUDIO WEST Exhibition, The Blush Upon Her Cheek. Drawing from Restoration Court painter Sir Peter Lely’s Windsor Beauties (1660s), a set of eleven portraits depicting ladies of the court of King Charles II, the exhibition sees a trio of contemporary artists examine the problematics entrenched in the cultivation and appreciation of beauty. Find more information on the exhibition, which will be running until the 22nd February 2024, click here.
We caught up with Florence over Zoom to discuss the exhibition, life as a self-taught artist and more…
Where did your journey as an artist start?
I didn’t go to art school, so it has not been traditional. I actually studied tailoring and now what I paint is so connected - I didn't see that at the time. I actually only started painting when a family friend asked me to do some work based on some A Level work I'd done and then I assisted for quite a few years for contemporary artists. I think that my schooling was actually assisting - it was quite photorealistic as I had to make the work very similar to the reference.
It's not the kind of work I would want to make myself, but it was such a good lesson in painting and bit of trial and error, because the actual artists I worked for were really happy for me to kind of work it out because they were working it out as well. And then it was probably in COVID that I actually started making my own work. And that's been really organic from there, just bits and pieces. Now it's really nice to be able to focus on making my own work rather than it being a side thing.
What drew you to oil painting as your medium?
Oil is just the nicest thing to paint with and acrylic - it just dries so quickly. I don't know how people use it. I'm so impressed when people can. I really like working in layers and oil is so good for that. You can use really translucent layers on top, which allows a real shine to come through the paint. Maybe people can do that with acrylic but I don’t know how that would work. It's just so delicious - as a medium it is kind of like alchemy. I really like a kind of butteriness of oil.
What themes in Sir Peter Lely’s portraits does your work look to tackle?
It's such a great brief because it lends itself to my work so well anyway. I went down the route of looking at how Lely was trying to portray the women but also how they would want to be portrayed. Also how they would want to clothe themselves in their portraits. Things like the fact that the garments that they're wearing, they wouldn't have sat in those garments, they would have chosen the colours and those dresses separately from having their actual faces painted. So he would have had probably an assistant paint the garments and then basically stuck their faces onto the image, which I find fascinating. It’s quite interesting with Ki and I’s work up close to each other as he does these unbelievable, close up portraits. The idea of these women going up and being like ‘I want to be in gold’, I just find really funny.
I suppose looking at social constructs of beauty then and now and how that is portrayed in those paintings. They all look very similar. There’s definitely a typical beauty that would have been of the time, which wouldn't necessarily be something we would see now because we have very different ideas of what that is.
There's a few things that I've used in the paintings in the show, which I haven't used before. I’ve used mirrors, so there’s some reflections in the pieces - in some pieces more abstract than others. And then also, some typical beauty items, like I've got a painting with nipple covers, which you can't quite tell are nipple covers. These nipple covers aren’t super obvious unless you really look at it.
There’s also lots of garments and lots of drapery but then some hair. And I've actually got to reintroduce bodies a bit more than my last show, so it's been quite fun pulling on those tropes of beauty and seeing if I can use them without it being too obvious.
How did you come to be interested in depicting drapery?
I think I have a bit of a compulsion for it. I really enjoy painting it. And then I found that I could get quite a lot across just with using drapery. I was including bodies a lot, and then I did a few paintings where I removed the bodies and I was still managing to convey something without the bodies at all. I mean, squint your eyes in the National Gallery, and it's just all drapery. It was a way of conveying meaning and getting the story across in these paintings. And so then I was like, well, if I can just kind of crop that and use it, I wonder if it works in the same way. And it doesn't always work, but it's quite fun to try and use it in different compositions like that.
Would you be able to take us through the meaning behind the piece: ‘I wish I’d never laid eyes on you’
In that show I focused on the difficulty we have of trying to live in a very consumerist world but also just live. There’s quite a lot of push and pull with that one. The actual subject of the painting is quite a dramatically altered image from an Alexander McQueen show. The colours and everything have changed, but it's painted on to an old suede curtain. All of those works for that show were this idea of abundant drapery and really superfluous fabric, but on top of these recycled and reused fabrics, and it was trying to get at this idea of existing in a world where we need to be so conscious of the environment, but we also want to live our one version that we get of this life.
What would you like people to take away from this coming exhibition?
Quite a few of the things that I am interested by and enjoy painting are things we just accept as a normal for you to use to create a beautiful person, if that makes sense. Like nipple covers - I don’t know if you’ve ever used them - the ones that are like flowers. On the packet, it is called, ‘a natural smooth look’, so the painting’s called that. But it was just this weird idea of this sticker that we use, and everyone uses them all the time. I use them all the time. To create this natural look, but it’s not natural.
[Florence would like people to] just re-look at stuff and recognise that we're trying to create natural beauty but using chemicals and products. Maybe just pointing that out a little bit to give a reminder, because I think we kind of forget that all these processes that we use get to a point of looking normal. But what is that?
What changes would you like to see in the art industry as a whole in the coming year?
I don’t know if I know enough about the art industry to even answer that! Probably more access for people. I've been wandering around a little bit in London and going to see the viewing room at Sotheby's. You seem to see the same names all the time in contemporary art. There's so much space for lots of people to be involved, and it feels like people just rely on the same stuff coming through all the time. Also more assistance to make that happen for artists.
I know there's lots of grants, but I found it quite difficult when I first started painting because there weren't very many opportunities because I hadn't just left art school. There's a lot of grants for people leaving art school, but I think if you haven't kind of taken quite a traditional route, it isn't as obvious what you do, and how you manoeuvre that.
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