Setting the Scene
“Do you know this artist?” “No…” “How about this one?” “I’m afraid not”. An example of a recurring conversation with friends outside of my course. “How about Maisie Cousins?” “Um” “The one with the grassy oily bum?” “Oh wait! Yeah, I think I’ve seen that”. Born in 1992, Maisie Cousins is a London-based photographer who used Instagram as her foundation for publicity.
With over 54.9k followers, a commission for the Tate under her belt and interviewed by Dazed on more than one occasion, it’s only fair that she have her first solo exhibition – “grass, peony, bum”. Exhibited at TJ Boulting and curated by Mia Pfiefer, I trekked it to London to see how Cousins had teamed up with bespoke perfumer Azzi Glasser to create a sensual show.
I use to shun the colour pink. There was something in being feminine that eight-year-old Britt had cottoned on as being a weakness. I chose combat trousers, camo and a career aspiration for being a pirate. Cousins appeals to my younger self in this exhibition. Her works definitely aren’t hinting at childhood innocence but she appeals to that feistiness and curiosity, the qualities that come without a filter when you’re eight. Perhaps if I’d seen this show at an earlier age, I might have at least given those awful trousers up.
Often described as being able to simultaneously attract and repulse her audience, there’s an encompassing theme of flesh and skin. The way the show was curated, it seems she was choosing works to focus solely on the attraction. I think the images are closer to abstract realism since she draws comparisons between the human body and nature. Cousins has been known to use fruit, fish and meat (maybe now is a bad time to describe her work as raw) but the bulk of the show featured syrup, insects and flower petals. It’s painstaking to imagine setting up her shots since she picks substances that tend to be untameable. Overall, her work is organic. It’s as though she’s reincarnated a flower catalogue through a 70s sex position book but with her own feminine eye for colour (none of those dodgy yellow filters either).
Her work stood tall, too. You’re almost invited to act as a voyeur in front of the larger versions of her prints. I felt like the uncomfortable one for intruding, especially when there’s a finger or three in there, grasping or rubbing. Innuendos are typically crude but she’s replaced “crude” with “self-assured”, both for herself since she describes her work as “self-satisfying” and for the audience, as they walk around point-blank staring at various “dripping flowers”. Her models are untroubled amongst the layered mess of oil and organic matter, she begs the question “when did we decide as we grew up that we were too good for the bodily fluids and hairs we can’t help but produce?”. Like all kids my age, snot trailing from my nose didn’t stop me from running around a playground – so why do we allow ourselves the time to feel self-conscious 10 years on in our sex lives?
If magazines are only sexualising the good bits, what about the rest of ourselves? Nothing I hated more as a teenager than stumbling into someone’s room feeling like I could feel confident about half my body and shrivel like a dead flower over the rest. Feeling like you had to explain yourself to them. Embarrassed for no real reason at all. Too bony. Red marks. Life’s too short to care and taste is subjective anyway. If Cousin’s is combining the stereotypically ugly with the stereotypically beautiful then the result is still beautiful. She’s just being honest. The images are subtly sexual and I think that’s fair, it highlights that trained eye in all of us to see where we’re biased over what classes as “vogue” and what we should stamp out and gang up on.
Cousins provides a foundation for women to take pride in being grossly feminine, it sexualises the physical differences that we’re asked to reject in line with modern beauty standards. We all know companies these days are trying to hit the “we celebrate physical diversity!” band in their advertising campaigns but they lose sincerity where they haven’t visualised it like Cousins has – passionately unmoderated. I don’t think she’s inviting people to feel turned on the next time you wake up and the slug pellets haven’t worked but she’s wiping away the shame in not achieving perfection. That’s all that’s needed really, it’s an awakening to the rest of us sat comparing ourselves to online Facebook-famous princesses.
“Grass, peony, bum” was curated by Mia Pfeifer, a Central Saint Martins Fine Art Graduate. Pfeifer took Cousins’ work from strength to strength as she plucked the best bits from over the years to create a simply stunning show. Combined with Glasser’s scent, the three of them broke down that barrage of silent gallery etiquette, the walls speak to you. To top it all off, the lower gallery was painted pink and featured a gold gloss floor which not only amplified the small space but reflected the digital screens into gold waves. Where her photographs and videos already glisten, the room came to life as an extension of Maisie’s work. It’s this kind of exhibition that goes above and beyond the usual awkward experience at your local gallery. There’s an intense atmosphere that’s been carefully constructed by the creatives involved. It comes as no surprise that the private view was full of talented people celebrating Cousins’ accomplishments – models, entrepreneurs, creative directors and photographers alike.
Why Champion Her?
Not only is her work charged with feminine power, she’s setting her own beauty standards, something we need in a social media driving anxiety-inducing self-esteem-damaging society. What professionals would photoshop out, Cousins embraces and not for anyone else’s approval but her own. Within the last few decades, galleries have been hounded for lack of female representation, that there are more female nudes than female artists (“Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met?”). Cousins is amongst the wave of women I believe who are going to make sure our place in an exhibition sticks. Unbound by traditional photography, Cousins didn’t let an uninspiring degree stop her from making a career for herself. Photography is a hard enough business to make a mark in, let alone the accolades she’s gained and will continue to gain. She made a bold decision to go back to London and carry on making what inspired her, I suspect the work she makes now is against the academic approval of her ex-tutors. Good for her.
Cousins’ trust in herself and passionate to create what she wants has driven her to earn a place as an up-and-coming artist. Only now can people put their fate in their own hands through self-promotion so if you’re talented enough, why shouldn’t you be rewarded? Cousins demonstrates how the industry is changing to favour what the public want as opposed to what a private select panel want. She relishes in playing to her own tastes and at only 25, she’s a role model to me as a Fine Artist.
Written by Brittany Sutcliffe.
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