INTERVIEW: Ashleigh Swain | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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What do you see when you look at a naked body? For a lot of us, looking at our own bare torsos in the mirror can be an uncomfortable experience. We humans are highly critical creatures, always focusing on the tiny flaws in our anatomy and wishing away the excess flab. But 18-year-old Sunderland artist Ashleigh Swain feels that our bodies, and particularly all of the dangly bits, are a lot more fascinating than we might have ever imagined. “My thoughts derived from Willem de Kooning’s observation that ‘flesh was the reason oil paint was invented’. Human bodies have always been of interest to me ever since I took life drawing classes. I chose to explore them in the hope I could understand them more and re-create them in fragments.”

The Fine Art student’s exhibition, titled Flesh, will be held at Arts Centre Washington from Saturday 10th December until Saturday 28th January, and will explore the nature of the strange shapes and forms that make up the outer layers of our physical vessels. “I find flesh a peculiar substance that creeps in every crack and coats the outside of our organs alongside the perimeter of our bodies. Researching into the anatomy of the body has given me the understanding to create something that is responding to the living. I’m interested in finding materials and combinations of mixed medias that create a flesh or body-like appearance.”

It’s a reminder that every being is equal and nobody should feel that their gender is an excuse to become powerful or powerless

Swain’s exhibition isn’t just about what is visible on the surface. Her work digs deep into the pores of what our biological composition means in a broader context, specifically in relation to gender roles. Feminist art is a major influence on her pieces and there is a deliberate attempt to challenge the viewer with her diverse imagery. “I feel strongly towards art being a successful form of communication to the public. Feminist art is such a powerful movement due to its criticism to traditional gender expectations, which is a societal issue that needs to be rectified and I feel that the best way is through art, not only because I have always been creative but because the public aren’t listening anymore. We need to grab their attention with something extraordinary so they do listen. I have been inspired by artists such as Sarah Lucas, Jenny Saville, The Gorilla Girls, Willem de Kooning and Louse Bourgeois all for the same reason…their work has a shock factor that distributes a message to the audience quickly, I hope to achieve within my own practice.”

Flesh certainly achieves the element of shock that Swain is talking about; pieces contain bulbous testicle-like hangings from flowered orifices and paintings of the naked form where genitalia are multiple and sexuality is unspecified. One of the central pieces is a massive clump of finger-like penises that is worn as a dress like a particularly gruesome protest. The same moveable sculpture is depicted like a tall tree and draped across as chair like an ornamental object. Overall, it’s a confrontational installation that tests preconceptions about the unclothed human form and insists that we should never feel bad about our own. “My ideal response from somebody viewing the exhibition would be that they weren’t disgusted or frightened, but that they internalised the main idea of normalising the naked body. I want people to come away from my exhibition not scared or ashamed of the flesh that coats their bodies. It’s a reminder that every being is equal and nobody should feel that their gender is an excuse to become powerful or powerless.”

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