Virgin Mary FFS
This essay was commissioned by Anna Ilsley for publication on her website
In June 2016, the British tabloids were abuzz with news of a recorded sex act involving a particular 21-year-old woman. Zara Holland, a contestant on a UK dating reality programme Love Island and holder of the 2015 Miss Great Britain title, had been filmed having intercourse with a fellow participant on the show. The ensuing media hoo-hah wasn’t aimed at the televised act itself though, at least not directly. The source of controversy was the decision made by the powers that be at the UK’s oldest beauty pageant to strip Holland of her title because, in their words “…We pride ourselves on promoting the positivity of pageants in modern society and this includes the promotion of a strong, positive female role model in our winners.”
At a recent studio visit, Anna Ilsley describes the incident to me with a wry smile. An organisation built on assessing women on their sexual appeal to men, she tells me, saw nothing wrong with punishing its own crown princess for appearing on a show based on its contestants’ sexual appeal to men. Piling on the hypocrisy, certain popular tabloids also proceeded to vilify Holland for having had the audacity to follow through, to seize back control of her own sexual agency by turning the acceptably implicit into the intolerably explicit. To Ilsley, the whole shebang all too neatly summed up the insidious double bind that’s still very much present and (in)correct for 21st century women. Don’t be a slut now, there’s a good bikini-clad beauty queen.
The women in Ilsley’s paintings take unabashed sucker punches at such pervasive hypocrisies. She has a deep, longstanding fascination with the stupendously complex history of femininity and its cultural representations that stretches far into the ancient world. A visit to Anna’s studio will take you on a heady conversational journey, from the (usually male) demonisation of strong female figures in the ancient world to contemporary slut shaming, stopping off at the origins of Western sexual repression and its roots in the Christian concept of original sin. She might tell you about Euripides’ hopelessly misogynistic casting of Medea, from her alternate role as powerful healer and protector of children to vengeful child murderer. A few minutes later, the chat could turn to the existence of ‘God’s wife’, Asherah, who went from being worshipped by the ancient Israelites as one of an equal, divine pair to almost complete biblical obscurity.
Ilsley’s protagonists offer up an unapologetically feminist disruption to patriarchally constructed images of what a woman is – or more accurately, what she ‘should’ be – that have long been created by cultural producers eager to reinforce them. As John Berger famously made clear in the third chapter of Ways Of Seeing, Titian, Cranach, Tintoretto, Rubens, Lely, Bronzino, Ingres and, well, the vast majority of artists who’ve painted naked women as nudes when the medium was in its infancy, have done so from an inescapably male perspective. It’s a hopelessly one-sided view that frames women not only as objects of heterosexual men’s desire, but also (more damagingly) as figures of scorn and intentional temptation, victims of their own supposed vanity who deserve their own oppression.
Her paintings are on a mission to severely rattle this centuries-long dominance of the male gaze, as described by theorists from Laura Mulvey onwards, and the deep and entrenched influence it’s exerted on the ways women are viewed and view themselves. But these are far from purely angry artistic responses to years of culturally-sponsored repression. Instead, these intensely-rendered women react to the status quo by throwing down their own cheeky, aggressive, sensual and/or sexually ecstatic gauntlets. Ilsley’s painterly responses include ample, swaying hips and proud flesh; the concentrated sideways glance of a masturbating female figure; erotically-charged massage scenes that are all clamped thighs and stroking hands, or the steely glare of a bouffant-headed woman as she tries in vain to squeeze into a vintage corset.
Those with eagle art historical eyes can also spot the many nods to the medium’s past that trickle through this work. Pink, Greuze-ish heads peek suggestively and steadfastly through splayed legs; women in the throes of receiving cunnilingus take their cue from images found in ancient Pompeii’s baths; a pair of furtively glancing seagreen heads are framed with a single brushstroke that feels like Ilsley’s take on a medieval halo. She’s a keen traveller and voracious consumer of visual culture, from the best known canvases in the National Gallery to Cosmo magazine, the eroticism of ancient Greece to the equality of desire in Japanese Shunga images, Norfolk’s distinctively decorated churches to contemporary televised portrayals of female beauty.
All this insight, which could so easily feel like clunky references in the hands of a less skilled artist, is communicated subtly, much more drip, drip, drip than overt. Discussing her process, Ilsley describes “finding” images and symbols through numerous edits rather than starting out with a firm, initial idea and working outwards. It’s a well-honed approach that pays the viewer handsome dividends. Ultimately, these brave, brazen, utterly contemporary women offer a vital way forward for the ways 21st century women see and are seen, even as they pay their multifaceted respects to the complex history of the gaze and its artistic expressions.