Why “Quiet Luxury” Is Taking Over Painting, Too

Art

Charlotte Jansen

Aug 7, 2023 7:28PM

You could blame that $500 Loro Piana baseball cap. The logo-free, Italian cashmere hat worn by Kendall Roy in Succession epitomized the era of “quiet luxury”—a stealthy signal of wealth that embraces a low-key aesthetic, in a high-end lifestyle, that speaks only to a monied, in-the-know elite. In parallel to this pop culture moment, painters have been picking up on the idea of representing a more subtle way to show off one’s taste, depicting beautiful garments and accessories in evocative detail, a thematic interest that goes back to the Renaissance.

At Alexis Ralaivao’s current exhibition at Kasmin in New York (on view until August 11th), 11 studies in oil paint all seem to shimmer with soft delight: a sumptuous silk scarf tied in a bow on a crisp white shirt; an elegant, silver hoop earring dangles effortlessly from an earlobe. Fascinated with tonal contrasts, transparency, and light, Ralaivao, who was featured in the 2022 edition of The Artsy Vanguard, explained that his interest in portraying finery came from looking at the details of Old Masters paintings.

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His close-up, zoomed-in perspective came while working a summer internship at a museum, where he collected postcards. One of them was a detail of an Old Master painting—a close-up on an eye. According to Ralaivao, it was perfect the way it was. “The original painting had a lot of elements in it, but just the eye was enough,” Ralaivao recalled in an interview with Artsy. “I think the close-up reflects more on the time we live in, the amount of information we can take. In a way it’s more minimalist. We are submerged by visual information. This offers a bit of calm and serenity.”

Though calm and uncluttered, Ralaivao’s paintings aren’t only paeans to well-made, beautiful objects—by painting them, he began to question them and their role in promoting a consumer ideology. “I am fascinated by, and at the same time repulsed by, the concept of luxury,” he admitted. Indeed, the title of the current exhibition at Kasmin, “On s’enrichit de ce que l’on donne, on s’appauvrit de ce que l’on prend” (a quote from Victor Hugo that translates as “We are enriched by what we give, we are impoverished by what we take”), suggests a critique of quiet luxury’s signposting of wealth.

For a new generation of painters, this is a shared concern. Portrayals of quiet luxury are not simply about the objects they depict. Instead, by shining a spotlight on these markers of social status, they prompt another understanding, one that probes at what these items mean in a wider sense.

“I think about materialism and capitalism all the time. It’s my closest friend and worst enemy,” said Leonard Baby, a painter based in Brooklyn. “I find humor in that dichotomy, though. So, my paintings are a critique on mid-century luxury and consumerism, but they’re also a love letter to it,” he said.

The artist’s close-cropped scenes of apparently desultory moments ripple with drama and the movement of luscious fabrics on anonymous bodies. Cocktail glasses, caviar, and formal tablescapes all conjure an atmosphere of decadence and refinement. “I wouldn’t say seduction is something I ever set out to depict, but I think the manifestation of the pure bliss I feel while I’m painting is what comes through and reads as sexy,” the artist told Artsy. “It’s kind of magic. I would consider myself a tactile, materialistic person, so I get great pleasure out of painting fabrics, metals, and skin.”

Baby’s paintings, too, are characterized by their highly detailed, zoomed-in aesthetic, recalling the language of advertising and cinema—a direct influence on the artist, who used to work at a repertory cinema where he would watch the movies on his break. “I would sketch the scenes that resonated with me in between selling tickets and concessions,” he said.

Advertising has also had an impact on the work of artist Caroline Zurmely, which scintillates with quiet luxury. For the past two years, the artist, whose works have been included in group shows at Huxley-Parlour, Guts Gallery, and Cob, has painted images of handbags, hairstyles, and textiles using nail polish.

Zurmely’s process begins with cribbing photos from tabloids, magazines, and social media, removing them from context so that they “lose their sense of time,” she said. She then pours and paints with the nail enamel, resulting in surfaces that are almost like reliefs, catching the light so that they appear first matte, then glossy.

Playing with the dichotomy that exists in the visual effect of her works as well as in their subject matter, Zurmely’s take on quiet luxury implicates the painting itself in the wider ecosystem of consumerist desire. “I like the idea of comparing them to ads,” she said. “It’s funny because I guess all artwork is trying to sell something.”

Images, after all, have influence, and quiet luxury can also denote a more insidious, soft power. Fashion, style, and design have long been used to assert authority, dominance, and control—and the more undercover these shows of status become, the more complex they are to grapple with. Quiet luxury might be touted as a more tasteful way to display one’s wealth, but the concept is still bound up with ideals of access, affordability, and value. In the midst of an oncoming economic crisis, these objects come to symbolize a societal problem.

Sydney-based painter Mia Middleton, whose work is represented by COMA and was recently included in a group show at Roberts Projects in Los Angeles, renders familiar fabrics and clothing—leather jackets, patent pointed shoes—with soft brushwork.

For Middleton, depicting clothing and shoes is “challenging and satisfying,” she told Artsy, but these subjects also evoke class, politics, taste, or desire, “exposing as much as they hide or protect.” Homing in on the psychological resonance of her subject matter, Middleton turns suggestions of affluence and luxury into something with a dark and surreal allure. The minimalist approach in her work, meanwhile, is about “teasing our tendency to simplify and condense in the face of expansiveness and uncertainty,” she said. Working in series, each body of work starts with a fragment of a narrative, person, memory, or dream: “something psychologically slippery that requires exploration,” according to the artist.

“Any sense of prestige is relatively shrouded and decided by the viewer, who brings their own subconscious desires to the work,” Middleton added.

While they may be gratifying at first, once these objects are transcribed to the canvas, enlarged and exhibited, they are no longer inconspicuous. “Quiet luxury” paintings hold a microscope to these opulent objects and their promise of comfort, belonging, or social acceptance, reflecting the machinations of contemporary consumerism and its signals, viewer and painter equally complicit in this system of creating desire. Though inaccessible to most, luxury, today, is hiding in plain sight.

Charlotte Jansen

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