Shelley Reed’s In Dubious Battle

Recently on view at Danese Corey Gallery in New York, artist Shelley Reed’s mural-sized paintings evoke the work of realist French or Dutch paintings from a bygone era—although at a slight removal given their monochromatic palettes. Each section foregrounds exotic animals juxtaposed with still life scenes and set against expansive landscapes, which are dotted with Rococo and neoclassical architecture. The indulgent paintings are an amalgamation of art historical tropes, bringing to mind a myriad of references. - Nadiah Fellah, NYC Contributor

Shelley Reed |
Installation, In Dubious Battle. 2013, oil on canvas, 7'x47', Courtesy the artist.

Shelley Reed | In Dubious Battle, panels 5 and 6, 2013, oil on canvas, 7’ x 9’9”, Courtesy the artist.

Many passages recall the royal hunts of the French court and the artists that followed them, like the 17th-18th century French painter Alexandre-François Desportes. His paintings recorded the animals that became trophies for royal residences, often incorporating the luxury items that would have surrounded the paintings in their patron’s homes into the works themselves. Like Desportes, Shelley makes use of this method by inserting baskets of ripe fruit and decanters of wine amid the hunting dogs and game. In this way the works also allude to 16th century Dutch paintings that warned viewers of the depravity of excess, while at the same time visually reveling in it.   

Shelley Reed | In Dubious Battle, panels 1 and 2, 2013, oil on canvas, 7’ x 9’7”, Courtesy the artist.

One section makes direct reference to the 17th century Dutch artist Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s The Menagerie, drawing on the exotic birds he was known for depicting along with sumptuous and equally exotic fabrics and porcelain, set on a neoclassical balustrade. The refinement of the scene is humorously underscored by the musical instruments positioned amongst the animals. At the height of new global exploration via an unrivaled naval fleet, there was a great interest in the Netherlands during d’Hondecoeter’s time in animals from tropical locales. However, a primary attraction of such paintings would have been the lush colors of their canvases, rendered vividly in the oil medium. By choosing to emphatically mute the palette of her oils, Reed draws our attention instead to other elements. What is most prevalent in her works are the subtle play of light and dark that the artist is able to capture, and the gradient tones of each pictorial field depicted, from foreground to background.

Shelley Reed | The Menagerie by Melchior d'Hondecoeter, Oil in canvas, 53 x 45.9 inches, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In addition, despite the seemingly antiquated subject matter of her paintings, the artist’s use of appropriative techniques ties her work to artists like Sherrie Levine as much as Desportes and d’Hondecoeter. By challenging the ideas of originality, Reed prompts viewers to question what constitutes markers of luxury and exoticism, and the value placed upon such items in contemporary society. The ostensible nostalgia that each large-scale painting evokes in its monotone palette is drained of the opulent brilliance one might associate with canvases such as these—one way in which she subverts existing power structures, riffing instead on their inherent absurdity.  

Shelley Reed | In Dubious Battle, panels 7 through 11, 2013, oil on canvas, 7’ x 18’4”, Courtesy the artist.

In opening up a discussion of this nature in a nuanced rather than a didactic way, Reed’s painting cycle is an elegant device for provoking thought and conversation about the systems and orders we take for granted, encouraging defiance and transgression. As the artist describes the process: “It's a conversation with art history that touches on nature, power, aggression, and beauty.”

Shelley Reed | Tiger (after Landseer and Thiele), 2007, oil on canvas, 72 x 56 inches, Courtesy the artist


Shelley Reed (b. 1958, New York, NY) lives and works in Boston, MA. She is a recipient of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Maud Morgan Award and a Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant. Her work has been widely exhibited in galleries and museums and can be found in public and private collections, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the Rose Art Museum, Waltham, MA; Danforth Museum, Framingham, MA; and the de Cordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA.

Nadiah Fellah is a doctoral student of Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.


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