Reba Maybury Deconstructs the Sexual-Economic Contract

At Company Gallery, New York, the artist uses subversion and humour to upend the ideological landscape of contemporary sex/work and our moral attitudes towards it

BY Jeppe Ugelvig in Exhibition Reviews | 09 MAY 24

If the great bogeyman of art history is the commodity, his complicit mistress would no doubt be the prostitute. This mythical figure is frequently made the emblem of modern capitalist social relations, in which sex is rendered a service crudely shoppable in the marketplace – not unlike petty merchandise. The impressionists were famously keen not only to capture this cultural flux of economic value but to replicate it visually, too, its canon full of blunt representations of courtesans who, in some warped attempt of (masculinist) allegorical critique, are reduced to passive but alluring objects of consumption rather than what they actually are: workers.

Reba Maybury, Used man, 2024. Courtesy: the artist and Company Gallery, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

In her show at Company Gallery, ‘The Happy man’, British artist Reba Maybury manages to swing at this bias with striking subversion and humour. The self-stylized ‘political dominatrix’ has used her (consensual) male submissives as artistic collaborators for years, in the process attuning her audiences to the ideological landscape of contemporary sex/work and our moral attitudes towards it. Here, Maybury directs these questions to the political economy of art itself: the value forms implicit in artistic labour and the institutional frameworks supporting them.

Visitors are met by two dejected-looking piles of men’s clothing. Isolated in the contextless white cube, they could be mistaken for post-minimalist assisted readymades, but these are closer to forensic evidence: both piles, we learn, were reportedly left by men who undressed on Maybury’s command as part of their sexual-economic contract. Above each hangs a crude reproduction of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Sofa (c.1894), depicting two female sex workers in collegial repose between sessions. This apt choice of painting not only represents the ‘behind the scenes’ of sexual labour – namely, the mundanity of waiting for the next client – but also the outcome of a Mayburian trafficking between sexual and aesthetic economies: Toulouse-Lautrec reportedly detested the lighting in the sitters’ Montmartre bordello, so he paid them to come to his studio. The titles of Maybury’s paintings – Amanda, Retired British Civil Servant, 52, Blackpool (2024), for instance – link these crude copies to the obscured authorship of her clients, bringing us closer to the proverbial ‘John’: a figure equally as mythic and ubiquitous as the prostitute, but – as noted in the exhibition literature – conspicuously less represented in our cultural imagery. The John is most often alluded to in a car pulling up at the corner, a just-vacated hotel bed: a sexual performer who, in his absence, leaves his female counterpart with the cultural shame. Maybury subverts this logic by aggrandizing it using the tools of post-conceptual art, proposing the John’s sexual acts of obedience as virtuosic performance labour. The John performs – yes, works – willingly under Mistress Rebecca to produce sculptures and, while the latter also works, she is the only one who is paid. This is a sculptural proposition with an effect nothing short of titillating. Denied access to these explicit acts, viewers are instead invited to re-construct the John in their minds by inspecting his underwear up close, safely re-branded as artwork.

Reba Maybury, ‘The Happy man’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Company Gallery, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

In the gallery’s basement, things get rather more ominous. Here, Maybury has restaged Faster than an Erection, first presented at MACRO, Rome, in 2021: a black-lit floor installation revealing a neon-glowing landscape of bodily marks left by a submissive following the artist’s instruction – no doubt referencing the artwork of yet another French male, Yves Klein, who famously used women as brushes. This dungeon monumentalizes sex work as artwork to compare economies of labour, but the joke ultimately ends with the audience itself. During my visit, silence loomed thick around the installation except for one male visitor, who, as if under a spell, repeatedly circled the lights while mumbling an undecipherable incantation. Was he working, I wondered? That is, producing value? Was I?

Main Image: Reba Maybury, Faster than an Erection, 2024, UV powder, sunscreen, submissive man's body prints, 10 UV lights. Courtesy: the artist and Company Gallery, New York; photograph: Sebastian Bach

Jeppe Ugelvig is a curator and critic based in New York. His first book, Fashion Work, was published by Damiani in May 2020.