“I’m a painter at heart, and I look at spaces as my canvases,” said Rebecca Louise Law, an artist whose métier involves large, site-specific installations hung with thousands of individual flowers.
Law says she “paints in the air,” because some spaces are so high, she has to perch on a piece of machinery in order to reach the ceiling, from which the flowers are suspended.
“I’m just down off the scissor lift,” Law said gleefully, over the phone from her East London studio. “The highest I’ve ever been is 16 meters [52.5 feet] and that was scary. You have to be harnessed in. I didn’t want to operate that machine on my own.”
The project in question is “The Canopy,” a 2016 work for which 150,000 mixed flowers were used. “It’s my biggest installation to date,” Law said. “It’s in Eastland, a shopping center in Melbourne. The developers sponsored me to create a sculpture that would have a 10-year plan. They could see the value in it. They were not for one second worried about the decay or that the flowers would shrink. The effects of time excited them, rather than deterred them.”
“The Beauty of Decay” — the title of Law’s installation at the Chandran Gallery, in San Francisco, through Aug. 4 — also indicates the artist’s embrace of the entire life cycle of the flower, including death. Law is interested in the transformation of the live flowers as they move through the natural stages of decay — wilting, fading and drying.”
By extending the perceived limitation of the beauty of flowers, Law imbues them with artistic value, elevating them beyond decorative items.
Law’s work has been discovered by the fashion industry. She’s received commissions from Hermès, Mulberry, Tiffany and Jo Malone, among others. “They have been quite flexible with me,” she said. “If a brand gives me a brief, it may be something related to a season, but it would be very vague. I’m approached as an artist, and I’m not told to do a design of something, or given a brief that’s too tight.”
Hermès offered Law a space at the Royal Opera House. “They asked me what I wanted to do. I said, ‘Fill the whole place with flowers.’
“Mulberry had a print with blues in it that they wanted to launch. I said, ‘I’d love to do pressed blue delphiniums.’ I completely filled the space with them. They were expecting something else, but they let me go with it.”
Law, who in 2004 graduated from Newcastle University, where she studied painting and drawing, said she was frustrated at school. “I wanted the paint to come off from the canvas, but I struggled with how to make that happen,” she said. “I experimented with different materials, including fabric, sweet foods, anything I could find that had color. I settled on flowers, but I was confused, because I knew they died.”
Law’s experiments in air-drying flowers and cutting away the foliage “proved me completely wrong,” she says. “The oils retained in the flower head held the flower together. It made me excited to see what I could do long term, and that the sculptures could be left in place indefinitely.”
She spent four years after university studying the history of flowers in art and perfecting her technique, which involves entwining each flower in copper wire.
Law’s father, head gardener of a National Trust property, provided his daughter with flowers at first, but as the scale of Law’s works grew, he couldn’t supply enough. Law went to flower markets and florists and asked for their waste. “After a while, they stopped giving it to me because they saw that I found value in what they were throwing away.”
Law said it’s taken until now for the public to be educated about flowers as a sculptural material.
“The negative side of decay, I think I’ve flipped that on it’s head,” she said. “I think you can see the beauty of dried flowers and preserved flowers. To be surrounded by something that comes out of the ground, that has so much complexity, is fascinating.”