Emma Cousin's paintings question feminism, discomfort and interaction in an age where we're under a constant digital gaze. “I use the body, or groups of bodies, to build a structure, to present “status changes”–Elephant Magazine
What are your paintings about?
Starting with word play, I build structures of bodies that act out the possible linguistic meanings. Exploring the humour and possible interpretations of the word or phrase, the bodies act out its meanings in a show and tell.
Looking for a rhythm, choreography escalates so that each figure individually looses their bodily boundaries. They become a demonstrative system of display where the meaning is broken down and embodied to reveal the complexities of communication and relationships. I extend or exaggerate the bodies to emphasise actions or feelings. They affect each other in their demonstrations, often threatening one another’s space, body and stability. In making these bodies, I reflect how we navigate our limits and expectations and how we manage our bodily power and our vulnerability.
As a collective whole, they are a darkly comic and irreverent parade of female characters, pulled and twisted to show us feelings, emotions and boundaries to question ideas of support, mobility and progress.
Set in a liminal space, the bodies are the only coordinates, on a transitional or transformative edge. This visual communication is important in eliciting contemplation of being in a world that is precarious.
I am interested in using paint as skin to create a level of semiotics that signify tension, gender, health, comfort, temperature, age, strength, vulnerability, emotion, action/motion and gravity. I am interested in how exaggeration of gravity and limbs illustrate a literal ‘body language’ and present the body as a sociopolitical site of power.
Have you always painted figuratively or has it been abstract?
‘It is within this precarious and uncertain world of representations that safety can be found.’
–Franco Vaccari. “Lo sguardo ciclico”pg.5.
I often make shapes, spaces and bodies that demonstrate a process of abstraction, of artificial measuring and flattening, using reduction or exaggeration to translate what I want to be felt. I prefer my friend, Corinna Till’s terms, geometric and biological. I use both.
I was interested in making a painting that moved, or rather, a composition and connection of bodies that made the viewer move. So this painting is an illustration of bodies moving each other in order to move around the space of the canvas. It is called Lead Cork as I like the feeling of the sound of the words in the mouth, as if they make us enact and sense their properties, heavy light. This emphasises the rise and fall of the movement and the weight used in the image. The expression is used to express relationships. I am presenting the possibility of collapse and elevation simultaneously to ask are we at a point of breakthrough or the moment just before breakdown.
What are you most excited about this year?
It’s been unique to explore and develop a piece of work as part of the Jerwood exhibition, Survey where I have made a wall drawing that has changed and expanded as the show has moved through its tour.
Jerwood Arts Survey Show. Bluecoats Gallery, Liverpool then Baltic Gallery, Gateshead, G39 Gallery Cardiff. The last iteration has just closed at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art; it was an 11x5 metre wall drawing made over two weeks on site.
Being able to approach a concept and process over and over has been a challenge and a reward as it continues to metamorphosise in response to the new spaces, architectures and scales. It has been a romantic project! The last iteration is now at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, on an 11metre long wall.
Other highlights this year include developing a body of work thinking about exhaustion as a tool for momentum or change. It has been exciting to start working with Vanessa Vaino on some site specific projects. Making drawings for the show currently on view at ASC Gallery, Fumblefinkandflexy, was exciting. I am also working with Big Shop Friday to make a book of drawings. I am looking forward to workshops at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art with Tim Spooner.
Tell us about your solo show at Edel Assanti in Fitzrovia; who curated it and how did it all hang together?
The show came about after Jeremy and Charlie saw a solo show at Lewisham Art House. We talked in that show for about 2 hours and then a few days later they invited me to make some new work for a show with them. The show was called Mardy.
‘Mardy’ is a Yorkshire term for ‘moody’ that catches the assertive, rather irreverent nature of the work. The word is most often applied to women or young girls. There’s also an echo of the Mardi Gras*, which suits Cousin’s carnival of colourful figures acting out what she calls ‘the comedy of how the body works’.
*Women showing their breasts during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, USA, has been documented since 1889, when the Times-Democrat decried the "degree of immodesty exhibited by nearly all female masqueraders seen on the streets."
Do you Draw / Sketch before you paint?
I draw all the time, I always say I have visual tourettes-It’s like a blessing and a curse because I love drawing but I cant turn of the visual stream. Sometimes they evolve into paintings, often after working up many drawings to land on the right balance and interaction, sometimes they remain drawings or become more ‘worked’ drawings.
Which artists do you admire and why?
Miriam Cahn – she is political, thoughtful, fierce and a truly brilliant painter. The mannerists, particularly Jacopo da Pontormo– what they did with colour, and subverting the rules of perspective and weight! Bronzino – paintings with 5 diff versions of faces all rendered uniquely but cohesively. Ingres -use of bodies with geometry and his liberty with (female) limbs. Mernett Larson – very exciting painter who has successfully invented her own language and perspective that feels like board meetings meets video games. Nicole Eisenman- her humour and handling is wonderful. Its also exciting to see her making sculptures, that to me are like great hulks of paint slapped about. Lisa Yuskavich because she’s an amazing painter technically and her attitude is unflinching and she has a unique way of implicating the viewer and making them responsible for their response to her work. Inka Essenhigh -she creates magical fucked up dip your toe in futuristic dystopias that feel very relative (like only 30 years from now). And I read a lot. I’m a fan of Sophie Collins, Sophie Robinson, Anne Carsen, Debra Levy, Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad and I’m just re-reading Olivia Sudjic’s book Exposure, which is fizzy. And a book on aggression written by Konrad Lorenz, a survey of animal behaviour where he applies his observations of animal psychology to humankind.What role does humour play in your work?
Its key in the making of the work - I often know something is worth pursuing when its making me laugh and often in the midst of creating a piece I might find myself laughing. This is also linked to embarrassment - Susan Sontag writes in her essay Against Interpretation something like ‘Great art makes you nervous.” And I think if you are making anything interesting it will be making you nervous as a maker as well as a viewer.
In the fool, ‘society's anxieties about itself find an outlet; yet the laughter which they arouse is at the same time a profound criticism of the forces which have made them what they are. The counterpart in their exaggerated non-involvement of the society of which they are a part, it is yet in their profound self-awareness and in their pity for those who suffer, its one hope of salvation.’*
I was also remembering/reading about/thinking about Bruce Nauman’s, Shit in Your Hat – Head on a Chair 1990 - the audience watches a performer following a set of instructions. Subtle variations in the spoken script direct a performance that becomes increasingly humiliating. I am similarly setting up characters who seem to be following a set of instructions and the resulting compromises, exaggerations and interrelations are funny.
*"The Fool in Shakespeare: A Study in Alienation," in The Critical Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3, Autumn, 1968, pp. 245-268. Roger Ellis 1986
APT Gallery Creekside Open 2019 selected by Brian Griffiths
9 May to 2 June 2019
A major new survey exhibition presenting new works by 15 early-career artists from across the UK.
Currently @ Bluecoats Gallery Liverpool
At Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art from 6th July
Feature in Ambit Magazine Issue 229
Emma is available for commissions. You can contact her here: