I really like to talk about things “as if”. I like metaphors and get a real kick when a visual simile hits the spot. So when “Liquid Skin” came to me as the name for my first proper collection of paintings of the body (partly because Shopify likes names for collections) I felt very satisfied. Liquid Skin brings together all the paintings I’ve made from photographs of my naked artist friends during my studies at Browne School over the last six months.
I have sheets of pictures and I use these as source material every day when I come to the studio. I turn the photos sideways and upside down, I crop them in order to disturb the sense of the image, to make myself (and, in the end, you) move closer. I draw and paint my friends every day.
Why my friends? I'm an actress so I know a bunch of people who don't have hangups about being seen with no clothes on. Many of my colleagues are now my friends, the kind I really miss in Lockdown (and I’m really missing them today as I type this; it’s Day 43 of Level 4/3). I just want them near me. I suppose that in the photographs I’ve taken and in painted form, they are close by.
Why artist friends? Because as well as being an actress and an emerging artist, I'm a photographer. My friends who are creators themselves understand what I’m trying to do when I ask them to participate in this project. They get that taking the photographs is part of a more complex creative process. We are collaborating and I think they welcome the chance to be part of an artistic process in a new way. They also know what pivoting as a creative is about and they want to support me.
The three friends who feature in my paintings and prints this year each have their own unique physical presence, their own way of moving, as distinctive as the sound of their voice. In each photoshoot, their movement was partly determined by the kind of space we were in. The combination of personality and physicality created quite distinct moods and this variation is really helpful for me when I’m choosing a photo to work from each day - I have a personality that needs range or I get bored or lose momentum.
Brigid features in my early work in Liquid Skin because she was the only subject I had at that point (we did our shoot last year). She danced with the Royal NZ Ballet once upon a time and is a choreographer and teacher. The photographs are energetic and expansive because we did the shoot in a big yoga studio so she had room to move and I could be further away. They’re really fun to draw from and they make for dynamic compositions.
By contrast, my second shoot with Mike (actor and co-director of The Dust Palace) happened at my studio. It’s a small space and his energy was necessarily more “contained” as he sat on the floor or on a chair or stood at the window. Mike features throughout a monoprinting series, The Only Print, which I started on a whim at the beginning of lockdown. The quiet contemplation in the photographs suits the process of trace monotype. Mike's physical beauty, his weight and his presence are very interesting to render in paint (although he isn't in the Liquid Skin collection yet). My brush as it traces his curves and edges feels different than when I’m painting from a photograph of someone on the move.
Bek is a dancer so despite also shooting in my small studio she was inclined to move as much as she could. I've used the photographs we took again and again because they are lyrical and earthy, just like she is. They've turned out to be ideal source material for compositions and mark-making that tends towards the surreal. “Something is happening here…but what exactly? And how do I feel?” She features in The Only Print as well, and is the subject of four of my favourite works in the whole collection: the OHOH Red series.
The OHOH Red paintings are the most recently completed but were begun nearly four months ago. They started one night at painting class: solid compositions combining pencil drawings of Bek with a matte, expressive ground. I wasn’t sure what to do with them next and I liked the canvases so much I didn’t want to “ruin” them by making unfocused work (I’d done that before) so I waited until I felt like I couldn’t put them off any longer.
Three and a half months passed, during which time my studies at Browne School began to focus my practice and my thinking about my practice. I’d learned more about colour and I was more confident in some ways because I’d been painting a lot. Eventually, the time came to get them done. I had an “I hope I don’t fuck this up” feeling when I started but I just took them one day at a time. I encouraged myself to stay connected as I worked, always asking: “What does this painting need now?” or “What’s missing?” If I didn’t know, I didn’t do anything.
Their name comes from the chemical composition of the red paint I began to use in their later stages. It’s called Alizarin Crimson and is one of the first pigments humans ever used (3,500 years ago). Out of the tube, it is almost the colour of fresh blood. When I mix it with white it sometimes makes me squirm. It’s the colour of flesh, of fever, of flushed skin. It’s the colour of anticipation and desire. Say its name aloud: it even sounds sensual.
Right now, I don’t actually want to paint anything other than The Nude. I tried still life and it’s just not as fun for me. I guess I could “try” to capture the life in some favourite objects but…I prefer people. I also like collaborating with my friends - I could find any number of naked people on the internet but I don’t know if I’d feel the same way when I painted them because I don’t know them. I like painting my friends. Is this weird? Maybe. Do I care? Increasingly, no. Maybe I prefer them as a subject because I know more about who they are “inside” and this matters when I paint their outside.
This outside/inside thing is part of the reason people have always drawn/painted/carved naked people. The human body has always been a symbol of inner qualities, serving as reminder, aspiration, warning: this is what is powerful. The bare human form has stood (or lain) for something in art ever since the first artist painted Jesus on the Cross. To hear more about this, look up Mary Beard’s two-part series “The Shock of the Nude” via the BBC (or Daily Motion); it's a great introduction to the subject of the nude in art history.
By the middle of the 20th century, the "nude" had evolved into the “naked portrait”, as modernism blew artistic conventions to bits, painters began to use paint in physical, tactile ways, and figures with names and faces began to appear on gallery walls without their clothes on. In the 21st century, the painted body has become more confronting, more disturbing, more sensual and electrifying. Although currently I don't include faces (or even heads sometimes) in my work, I seek to capture what is unique in my friends' expression. By painting a particular human, we are drawn closer to that human's experience.
Despite the increasing complexity of the culture we live in (or perhaps because of it) the human form is a place my eyes and mind can rest. But it’s also arousing and I don’t just mean in a sexual way. I think that looking at any work of art based on the naked human body brings us into our own body. We are brought immediately into connection with our sense of being alive and of being conscious, especially if our feelings are a lot for us to handle. Empathy is at play here: we gaze at another and feel ourselves from the inside, especially if we are looking at work in a public space.
Bots on social media these days have been programmed to remove anything that looks remotely like pornography, something that has made it difficult for me to add artwork to my Facebook shop (but that's another story). Porn is just a click away from any of us at any time and because of this I contend that the naked form in art can be a sobering, cleansing presence. Stay with me here: I think we almost need it. Looking at paintings of naked people invites us or perhaps even forces us into the moment, into this moment, where we become aware of who we are and how we feel about ourselves: beautiful (or not), innocent (or not), vulnerable, mortal. Life is erotic. On the other side of your body’s shock at feeling alive is a sense of freedom. A sigh of honesty. The quiver of potential. Your feelings are You. You can relax. The painting won’t bite. You’re okay.
Liquid Skin charts the six-month discovery (or perhaps recognition) of what I really like to make art about and why: the more I photograph and paint the human body, the more I want to. Why would I be obsessed with such a subject? Because I’m just the latest in a very long line of artists who prefer to paint nudes. Because I’m never bored (and believe me, I can get bored) and because in a time characterised by insincerity and manipulation, the naked human form is exactly the symbol of authenticity I need.
We live in a perforated digital world and I don't want to make art about technology. I want to make art with paint and brush and a bit of canvas or wood. I want to make art about us. There's so much talk of "mental" health these days and not enough about what's below the neck: ragged nervous systems, numb bodies, pain that's trying to speak. If my work reminds you that you exist, that you have a good heart, and that despite the shit it's really good to be here, I've done my job. (Take a painting home and you can be reminded every day lol.)
The novelty of the perfect name still hasn’t worn off and I don’t think it will. I have plans to involve more people in what appears to be my latest obsession and long-term project. So, for the next while you’ll find me painting. You’ll find me painting bodies. But not just anybody’s body: the naked (or nearly naked if that suits them best) bodies of my artist friends. Their liquid skin.