What is the emotional condition of a human being when coping with an unknown environment or entering an unfamiliar space? No doubt, the body language varies in expressions when the need to deal with unseen territories is ineluctable. Through the prism of political sociology the human body could be also perceived as another site of power. Emma Cousin’s (b. 1986) female figures painted in manifold positions and actions reflect bodies as indicators to evaluate unorthodox realities. Placed in different settings, the artist’s characters executed in uncanny angles portray a body status with dynamic attributes. Although the element of vulnerability is not absent from her depictions, the painting outcome brings up powerful physical representations regardless their seemingly imperfectness or weakness. The visual disruption of the depicted silhouettes sports a remarkable asset at a deeper engagement or level converting infirm bodily elements to potent creations.
Words: Yannis Kostarias
Cousin’s paintings are structured by a rich vocabulary of uncanny forms and vivid colours that variously correlate in disorderly perspectives and action-packed backgrounds. All her paintings are signified by an evident rhythm; the interlaced female bodies are presented in an intertwined painting system where everything seems to coexist in a give-and-take enclosed environment. This cyclic approach, such as in the Black Marigolds, 2018, or the Song Drapes, 2018, offers a more intimate dimension to her visualizations, while their perplexing synthesis prepares the viewer’s eye for a tireless interpretation of the work. Their relationship is challenged by clumsy gestures and other intensive actions of gripping, pushing, stretching or squeezing. This creative tension in relationship with the bodily defiant expressions and forms develop exacting images of an antagonistic battlefield. An evident bold palette is used by the artist enhancing the dramatic shape of her figures.
Particularly in the Song Drapes, 2018, there is a vicious interplay among those four female characters; all of them violently blend with each other showcasing an exaggeratingly grotesque scene in Cousin’s imagery. In this work, all movements and gestures are very well orchestrated and linked in a way that projects great tension. At the canvas’ edges two feeble female giant figures hold and bite hands and legs of a pendulous woman. She is presented as an aggressive predator whose both hands have grabbed in the air another loose body and captured it as a vulnerable victim. Simultaneously, this apparent victim also appears to be a capable assailant, who grasps the other two giant women by biting the one’s enormous tit and the other’s feeble belly using her elongating hand in a dramatic depiction.
The body representation is rather remarkable, while Cousin examines her figures’ structural conformation; ‘I am extending them, elongating them and testing their limits but never aim to damage them. I am using the bodies as a system to explore and idea which is demonstrated in their actions and relationships with one another’ she mentions herself. Depictions of the female body are stylised so as to be perceived elongated, flabby, limp or even attenuated. Interestingly those painted figures that successfully manage to balance their stance and often to rest all their weight on one leg, underline visual and intellectual contradictions. Key ideas of elasticity and flexibility are explored within the limited borders on the surface of a canvas. Metaphorically the body shapes and limits are challenged without being damaged though. Ideas of the introspectiveness and self awareness are thoroughly examined by pushing the limits on the edges.
Born in Yorkshire, United Kingdom, in 1986, Emma Cousin lives and works in London. In 2007 the artist graduated from the Ruskin School of Fine Arts in Oxford. Since then she has developed a vast record in the art scene. Besides her residencies in Italy, Hungary and the UK, Cousin has also been involved with dance, poetry and curating. She has founded Bread and Jam Project Space, while she also works as a tutor in art institutions, such as Milton Keynes Arts Centre, Sotheby’s Institute and Headington Girl’s School.
Art Verge: Can you tell us about the process of making your work?
Emma Cousin: I use the body to build a system of figures to represent, explore and understand an idea, such as awkwardness or massage, often responding to wordplays like ‘food for thought’ or ‘pain in the neck’. I’ll play with the words to create versions of interpretation that the bodies can then demonstrate diagrammatically. These play out in a series of drawings to literally visually portray the versions of meaning of the words.During this process the bodies become characters that often express the emotions and psychology of the potential of what is going on. The figures are always ‘up to something.’ Like we have walked in on something. In the final painting I use the characters generated in the drawings to build a system of bodies to present the initial idea. Setting up characters with new forms of relationships to one another and the world based on everyday functions such as holding, pushing, stretching. I am questioning, how supportive are we of one another as women, as bodies and as individuals. I use the body, or groups of bodies, to build a structure, to present ‘status changes’: mobility; clothes; aging. The groups might fail – are they going to topple over or fall apart? I’m curious about our expectations of our bodies and judgments of other bodies. I’m testing their limits and interested in putting the bodies at risk. They exist in a liminal space. A space between us and not us.
AV: How would you define your work in a few words (ideally in 3 words)?
EC: Honest. Funny. Brave. Real. Unapologetic.
But maybe that’s more what they feel like to make!
AV: Can you name any artists you, lately or generally, take inspiration from?
EC: I’d say generally, Lisa Yuskavich, Jacobo Pontormo, Mernett Larsen, Walter Balthus. Also drawers like Tommy Ungerer, John Kricfalusi (cartoons). Its mainly writing though or dance/choreographers – Crystal Pite and Alain Platel. I’m reading Twyla Tharp’s (choreographer), biography at the moment and its full of visual ideas and shapes. Jack Underwood’s new collection Happiness and Sophie Collin’s Who is Mary Sue? – poetry. And I take a lot of inspiration from Samuel Beckett and Thornton Wilder. And Sontag’s essays are near, particularly her one on Sci-fi, The Imagination of Disaster. And I like novels as they often evoke a strong sense of landscape, space and time – I’m thinking of Anna Burn’s Milkman which made me completely refocus and rethink sunsets.
AV: Observing your work, it seems that deformed bodies have a dominant presence on your canvases. Do the notions of deconstruction or imperfection involve aesthetic motivations that you rely on or draw inspiration from?
EC: I am not sure about the term deformed bodies. I am extending them, elongating them and testing their limits but never aim to damage them. I am using the bodies as a system to explore and idea which is demonstrated in their actions and relationships with one another.
AV: Could you share with us some further details regarding your recent painting named ‘Cautley Spout’ (2018)?
EC: Named after the highest waterfall above ground in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The cascade comes off a high plateau called the calf. This came to mind with this painting which is full of emotional women, with an energy of ‘falling’ and centred on the the bottom figure which wracked over backwards and crowning. The figures are arranged like a classical sculpture lend a grace to this graphic scene. They are vulnerable, in greyish pants that are in fact a thin wash of paint. The chaos is caught in their thighs which almost explode with webbed brushmarks as if they are describing the feelings within. The middle figure, bent over, holds her tears as if they are a solid object and hides. This is a revealing, embarrassing, tender group trapped inside their own emotion but held together in solidarity. The bodies fit together like a puzzle. Here, like water, feelings take the shape of their container, affecting posture and balance and weight. The figures have no coordinates in the space, their only anchor is the structure of themselves or possibly an overstretched forefinger groping for the edge of the canvas. I was basically considering all the over-emotional states a woman could go through and the situations that push them there.
AV: Creating a new painting can be a solitary process. If this applies to you, when you concentrate on a new artwork does it affect your social life at all?
EC: Well, you don’t have to be in the studio so there is always a choice, which generally implies you are choosing not to do something else, which is often the socialising; I have been known to be very late to dinners…! But I think social activity and involvement, dialogue, discussion with peers, sharing love and problems with friends and family are all vital for mental and physical health which keeps the spirit and mind happy and focused. They also often feed the work, even if they don’t know it, or even I don’t know it at the time. With a process like painting it is very intense and addictive and I do find I get obsessed and very into the world of the specific painting I am in. I will often fall asleep asking myself a question, like ‘where are the figures? And what temperature is it there? And why?’ It’s amazing how many times I wake up with some forms of answers. But more and more I’m learning that you can still be in that world and not necessarily be painting, you can take some decisions or parts with you and ghost them, concentrate on them, have them floating around. And that makes life pretty fun. But there’s no getting away from the fact that you have to be there doing it for any work to be made! And often the process requires long stints at a time due to drying time or layering techniques. There are no shortcuts and the time put in is often tangible in the end result in its tension, resolution and technical accomplishment. Sometimes talks are a brilliant space to doodle and draw in a non-self-conscious way. And they are a good space to collect character details!
AV: How do you know when an artwork is finished?
EC: This is a tough one and really comes down to being honest with yourself. I often think about it by asking myself, have I held back? Or is there a weak point that deep down I know could be better even though the work could just get away with it? The more paintings you make the more you can see what your capable of and the more demanding you get! Painting takes a lot of time and it’s difficult, more and more difficult I’m finding the more you do it. So it would be easy to say, oh it good enough. But it’s important to be as rigorous in the making as in the ideas.
AV: What about the place where you work? What’s your studio space like, and how does it affect your process?
EC: The studio is remote enough not to be distracted by going for coffee or pootling to a market or to meet someone. Though there is a great greasy spoon, Roma’s 5 mins walk away for when I need a hot cheap lunch! It’sin a large warehousy type building, a Space Studios,. My current studio is wonderful with two windows and north light which is even and stable, though often at the moment the lights have to be on too. It is shaped like a rectangle as I realised for the scale of these larger works narrow but long is optimum. It means there is enough room to step right back from either side wall and stack paintings in the middle. My chair and drawing desk are opposite the stacked pics so that I can watch them and look at the one I’m working from at the end while I eat lunch (generally in the studio, fairly swiftly.) I find this a very productive, happy, energetic space and context to work in. Its 20 mins cycle from my house too so easy to get to and from any time of day which is key when you’re working on large paintings which sometimes need long hours to complete sections in one go.
AV: Which exhibition did you visit last?
EC: The Artes Mundi 8 show in Cardiff (I was there installing Jerwood Survey show at G39), and their National Gallery – dreamy collection including a fab Mancini and some draw dropping Brangwyns as well as Gwen John, Lanyon, Carriere, the list goes on!! Most most recently was South London Gallery, their New Contemporaries show, Assembly Point’s Hyper Mesh group show and Hannah Barry Gallery’s Henry Hudson’s solo show Nothing sticks to nothing – I am lucky that they are all local to me. I also LOVED Oona Grimes’ Hail the New Etruscian#2 show at Matts Gallery, a show of new short films. I try to see as much as I can.
AV: What do you hope audiences will take from your work?
EC: I am aware that once the work is out there it starts its own conversations; Picasso said something like, having an exhibition is like sending your children out into a room full of blindfolded people with razor blades! So, I hope they are kind. I hope they feel it is made with them. I hope it gives them some support/strength/courage or at worst a laugh. I hope it makes them curious. I hope it starts dialogue.
AV: Are you a morning person or a night owl?
EC: Honestly, I have to be both! Naturally I am a night owl and often work late. However, I find I have many breakfast studio visits and there are many social commitments to be enjoyed in the evenings so being fresh and up and going first thing really helps. Also, the light of the new studio has made me really appreciate the mornings. I guess physically, I Iove sunrise and dusk – all those fucked up colours and shadows.
AV: Is the glass half empty or half full?
AV: Which are your plans for the near future?
EC: I am working towards a solo show. There is some work going to LA for a group show in the spring. The Jerwood Survey show will continue to tour the country – Bluecoats Liverpool and Baltic Newcastle – and I will move with it to install and be at the openings; it’s a real privilege to see work in different spaces making new relationships and conversations and to really look at one or two big new works for basically a whole year. I learn something every time I encounter the work again. And I am currently artist in residence on Milton Keynes Art Centre’s Common Ground programme, Feb-April 2019. There will be a show out outcomes, collaborations and new works in April.
© All images are courtesy of the artist