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Our curator, Leo Babsky, caught up with Anna over a series of phone conversations and email exchanges, resulting in a fascinating interview spanning subjects as diverse as Delacroix and Ingres all the way through to Paris Hilton and Love Island…
LB: Your work has an amazing ability to squeeze in a huge amount of historical references - without feeling laboured. To start with can you tell us a bit about which parts of history you are particularly drawn to or the motifs that reoccur in your work?
AI: I'm a glutton for alluring /strong depictions of women in art all the way from the classical world right through to today! Right now I'm in Italy on a pilgrimage to Pompeii and Herculaneum to draw from the murals, many of which are gorgeously erotic.
The book that's permanently on my desk is a mythological compendium and I return to works by Delacroix, Cranach the Elder, Greuze, Ingres and Correggio all the time.
Motifs that reoccur are Leda; from Leda and the Swan, and any kind of odalisque, and I'm also forever fascinated by depictions of Venus's beauty and sexuality throughout the ages. I experiment a great deal with borrowing body language from these characters, and how they can be re-framed into confronting the viewer.
LB: Continuing on from the above question - and hopefully without oversimplifying your work too much - it seems like the starting point for much of your practice is readdressing or re-framing the imbalance throughout history of women almost exclusively being viewed through the male gaze*. Would that be a correct translation?
AI: God yeah! I find female sexuality one of the most concerning taboos still standing. Look at 2016's Miss Great Britain, Zara Holland - sacked from her role for having sex on ‘Love Island’, a TV show all about luring couples into having sex on national television.
With a twinkle in the eye I paint to respond to this kind of ‘Dark Ages’ psychosis of policing female sexuality.
LB: One thing I love about your work is your protagonists seem like they are having so much fun - exuberantly flouting any patriarchal ideas of female sexuality or body image. Its not even that they are making a point of not caring, they simply do not care – I see them as the ‘Rihanna's’ of the figurative painting world and I personally find it very uplifting and also an act of resistance in itself...
AI: Yes! Or Lady Leshurr! Precisely! I am definitely going for gleeful.
I went to a feminist conference a while ago and left pretty depressed - I heard someone say afterwards that Martin Luther King said I have a dream, not, I have a nightmare! I'm aligned with that - I'm all for a sense of optimism within my work.
In any case the women I'm painting are just representations of what is going on behind closed doors anyway…
LB: Speaking about a sense of confidence – and I hope this question isn’t too personal – would you say the self-confidence of your protagonists originates from your own self-confidence or is it more a projection of how you would like yourself and, by extension, other women to be? Or both?
AI: I think we are all split personalities and whilst one half of us may be confident and ballsy, the other half writhes in doubt and insecurity.
Years ago my paintings were of women retreating into the landscape partly as a way of escaping this chaos, manifested by the same pressures that still inspire the work.
Since I’ve turned to face this stuff I'm always drawn to consider an ideal, a poster girl, editing out the aspects of culture I loathe and building the rest through admiration of what exists: A Serena Williams bicep and aforementioned Leda's exuberance, a line from Melissa Lee Houghton with direct glances and bawdy grins.
I bathe in all that and love playing out all the performative aspects of that former character. I work on a small scale and edit the paintings a great deal- this hopefully allows quieter nuances to creep in.
LB: We have spoken about this previously but you know I had quite a strong reaction to your work - finding it so refreshing that the women in your paintings really enjoy their sexuality in such a fun way with zero thought to any notions of 'slut shaming' or whatever. But then when I dwelled longer on it I got really mad that it's still 'refreshing' in 2017 to see positive depictions of women in this way.
AI: Like you say, it suggests we are not such a liberated society as it would initially seem on the surface! There can be discomfort around the work I make, which I continually find surprising.
Phillipa Snow recently wrote of how Paris Hilton described how her widespread appeal was down to the way she is 'sexy but not sexual'… so much mainstream porn, magazine’s, adverts and music videos tow this line- so throwing down in paintings a sexually ecstatic gauntlet seems the most fitting response.
LB: I’d like to get your take on the strange times we are currently living in– on one hand there is the progress we are having around conversations such as ‘body positivity’ or ‘slut shaming’ contrasted with some of the very disturbing attacks on women's rights we are now seeing in the USA for example.
AI: There is a lot of enthusiasm right now for open conversations and hearing female experience, which is so encouraging.
However, there are also vast grey areas of intense, historic conservatism.
Trumps comments about his own daughter, his loyalty to removing choice for women and family planning… the UK pandering to him and to the DUP is all a frightening progress.
LB: Thinking about this interview really made me delve a little deeper into the pressure of the 'male gaze' and how insidious it is.
Obviously I am not female but the predominant gay culture is definitely one of extreme body perfection, which I’m not immune to by any means, so I do have some understanding of what that must feel like. However those attitudes are in no way as entrenched in social rules as heterosexual male entitlement to judge or question a women's looks or behaviour...
AI: I'm not immune either-self scrutiny is at an all time high for both men and women- I stopped reading women's magazines ages ago as they made me feel like crap! Did you see the (recently fired from Vogue) Lucinda Chambers interview?
LB: Yes I did
AI: It's brilliant; she frankly exposes the anxiety-ridden ideals that are religiously promoted for cash. In the same breath this stuff is great fodder for playing around with in paintings. To respond further, these are questions and issues that reverberate as I work, and keep me working. So many aspects of our culture sexualise women/teenage girls, and perpetuate restricting, archaic stereotypes. It makes me look back too at how my generation was taught to ignore cat calls and general sexual harassment, and how it served as a long lasting passivity with dealings with the male gaze.
LB: Talking of gay culture, in a weird way the artist that your work reminds me of the most is Tom of Finland.
Of course not aesthetically but in terms of sex-positivity; the guys can be having some really crazy, hard-core leather sex but afterwards they give each other a wink and go on their merry way, there is absolutely no suggestion of any kind of guilt or shame.
I think your work has that somewhat innocent quality in terms of sexuality - everyone is just having a fun old time
AI: Yes the guilt free frivolity is so important to me, though there are hints of the darkness and the comedic too… I'm aiming for nuanced with a wink!
Tom of Finland’s drawings are heroically unselfconscious works and whatever act is presented, a light and flirtatious sexuality is center stage- it's inspired.
I definitely want to muster that energy. I also admire Shunga paintings for their equality of desire too, and the sexy hunger in Ancient Greek and Roman pottery and paintings too.
Not to mention Lisa Yuskavage and a heap of my unstoppable contemporaries right now.
LB: Can you give our members the background story to your hilarious painting ‘Germaine’?
AI: Ha, yes! I saw her give an interview in 2015 where she talked a bit about her previous work, co editing 'Suck' a liberated porn mag in the 70s. She put her money where her mouth is and stuck her head between her thighs and grinned at the camera, for the front cover, perfect hairy bum in your face. Respect!
That same year she made her famous comments about Trans women* so in light of this I gave her some hermaphrodite qualities and disconnected her head from her shoulders, just for a moment!
I'm still a big Germaine fan- She continually raises vital, widespread attention and conversation where it's needed.
LB: That really comes across in the work – it gives her statement about transwomen the complete eye-roll response it deserves yet it also has a sense of warmth to it… Your admiration for her still comes through whilst not letting her off the hook for her comments.
LB: Final question, this isn't really related to your practice as such but I want to start asking this to the artists I interview - how do you practically live your life as an artist, I assume you don't make enough to live from your art so how do you make ends meet?
I think it’s important for any artists starting out on their career to understand the practicalities involved in being a practicing artist.
AI: Yeah I'm one of the 97% of artists that can't rely solely on the sale of their work! (Reassuring stats keep me going…) I’ve kept the bread on the table by gardening and cleaning 2 days a week for years- before that it was child minding.
I like the reliable, physical work that I can disconnect from once I've left work. I also teach on the side- I work as a VL, tutor life drawing classes and I have a series of drawing workshops that I run at the University of Brighton too.
TBH this wouldn't be enough if I paid normal rent- I can only survive because I sold a load of work one year, borrowed a bit from my brother and bought a boat.
LB: Wise move! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Anna.
Anna Ilsley was selected for the 2011 Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the ICA and was awarded an Arts Bursary Award for the British School in Athens, Greece.
Century currently has four works by Anna in the Club’s permanent collection and Anna will be part of a group exhibition in the Club early 2018.
• The male gaze is the way in which the visual arts and literature depict the world and women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasure.
• In 2015, Germaine Greer was quoted as stating: “Just because you lop off your d**k and then wear a dress doesn't make you a ******* woman.” A comment widely viewed as extremely transphobic.