grass, peonie, bum / Reviewed by Lisa Stein / 27.06.17
‘Flowers or Vaginas?’ Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings of flowers have been interpreted as erotic images ever since the photographer Alfred Stieglitz exhibited a series of portraits of the artist, many of them intimate nudes, at his 1921 retrospective in New York. Following the exhibition, critics, taking their cue from Stieglitz, would describe O’Keeffe’s abstractions as expressions of her sensuality. Given the long-standing tradition of associating flowers with female sexuality, a practice that dates back to the eighteenth century, O’Keeffe’s vigorous denial that her close-up paintings of orchids and Calla lilies were in any way erotic seems rather naïve. However, her reluctance to shape one tradition may have resulted from her fear of being excluded from another, known to overlook and omit female artists. When men described her as the best woman painter, O’Keeffe, determined to secure her place in Western art history, would famously insist she was one of the best painters.
While the photographer Imogen Cunningham, who carried out an in-depth study of the magnolia flower in the early 1920s, did not oppose feminine readings of her work as overtly as O’Keeffe, she claimed not to have been aware of the painter until much later in her career. Perhaps Cunningham’s reluctance to acknowledge O’Keeffe, and her decision to turn her attention to industrial subjects was no coincidence; perhaps Cunningham also feared that her work could be interpreted according to her gender and, as a result, would not receive the recognition it deserved. Indeed, female photographers have long struggled to find their voice in an industry that has been dominated by men, and depicted women from a male perspective. However, in her recent publication Girl on Girl, Charlotte Jansen introduces a new generation of female photographers that are using the female body ‘as a material […] over which the photographer-model has total ownership and final sovereignty’, thus taking agency over the images that are made of them.
One of these artists is Maisie Cousins. The photographer, whose close-ups of peonies, orchids and lilies are currently on show at TJ Boulting in London, exploits the symbolism of flowers as female sexual metaphor in a confrontational manner. By combining symbols of gender stereotype with visual advertising techniques, Cousins exposes the absurdity inherent in the way both traditions have sought to represent the female body. The artist’s photographs of oleaginous petals, female faces and bodies are deliberately seductive; akin to those used in advertising, Cousins’ images are suggestive, highly saturated and immaculately executed. However, as we approach her enticing photographs we begin to notice elements that do not correspond with the glossy images used in magazines and on billboards, particularly in their treatment of the female body. Cousins’ models are real; they are hairy, their skin is impure, scratched, their mascara is smudged, their lipstick covers their uneven, stained teeth. They bite their nails. Sticky, syrupy, slippery liquids cover their faces and bodies. As the title of one of Cousins’ series suggests, this is ‘what girls are made of’.
While we may appreciate Cousins’ honesty, it is important to keep in mind what draws us to her images in the first place. Take, for instance, her use of colour. Pinks and purples, colours associated with femininity, with the qualities of being endearing or attractive, dominate; they become aggressive. Flesh, which ranges from yellow to grey, becomes unappealing. Still, there is something undeniably sensuous about Cousins’ palette. This is highlighted nicely in the smaller, adjacent gallery space, which is transformed through the use of gold, reflective foil on the floor and a deep shade of coral on the walls. Entering the space, we feel as though we are being swallowed by one of Cousins’ oily blossoms. Precisely herein lies the success of grass, peonie, bum; by tapping into our deepest desires, sexual or consumerist, Cousins demonstrates that we perpetuate the very ideas we wish to applaud her for undermining. There is something utterly comical about the way the artist’s captions, which range from the innocent to the explicit, can render her photographs erotic or anticlimactic. They make us aware of the fact that we still bring expectations to the work that are not met, visually or semantically, and we are ultimately exposed by our own disappointment.
We cannot know whether Georgia O’Keeffe’s work would have been received any differently had the painter intended it to be read as an expression of her sexuality. However, if we can learn anything from Maisie Cousins’ incredibly mature body of work, it is that women will never be able to criticise or change the industries they are a part of if they deny who, and what they are: unapologetically female.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Lisa Stein
Installation Views of grass, peonie, bum at TJ Boulting Gallery
59 Riding House Street
London W1W 7EG