Sophia Hewson

Last year the young Melbourne painter Sophia Hewson was selected to take part in the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art’s International Project. She spent six weeks travelling through Indonesia, taking rapid, handheld photographs. These photographs formed the source material for many of the paintings in her next exhibition, Delivered [internalizing the pervert / or re-building the body psyche].

This will be an ambitious exhibition, with 10 paintings, a cast of several hundred custom-made inflatable toys and a rather painful sounding performance work on opening night. There is a new confidence and immediacy to her painting, shown through a looser hand and more gestural approach than the photorealism of earlier work. But perhaps it’s also a result of a new sort of peace – not the peace that comes with achievement or arrival at a goal, but with self-awareness and acceptance of struggle.

Her work centres on the idea of ‘faith not found’ – the search for meaning and the failure of what’s expected to be transcendental. But while she deals with universals of the human condition, her work is also inextricably tied to the present day and the experience of being a woman in contemporary Western society. She sees her work as negotiating a multi-generational history of female disempowerment and objectification, and the self-objectification that women enact on their own bodies. Her take is part celebratory – intent on reclaiming women’s agency – but it is also ambivalent, confrontational and far from black and white.

One of the most striking things about your new work is that it has a very different aesthetic. It looks more immediate and confident than your earlier work. Do you feel more confident?
Yes, I feel like I’ve resolved some things conceptually in my practice and that’s giving me a newfound confidence in the making process.

In terms of technique these paintings are looser, they have visible brush strokes and more gestural mark-making. They’re also faster to make, which means I can work more immediately with ideas … I still use photorealism if I have a specific purpose for it, but I was driven to loosen up because I’d lost the pleasure in the making. When I considered maintaining a career over a 40- or 50-year period that seemed important.

How did this new body of work evolve?
This body of painting comes from photo shoots I did in motel rooms in Indonesia and back alley lawns – fast, handheld photo shoots. Most of them are self-portraits but I wouldn’t consider them self-portraits.

In this exhibition each artwork will function symbolically to construct a church inside the gallery. There will be a crowd of foil inflatables that I’ve had custom-made. They’ll have a blonde seven-year-old’s face printed on them – it’s a stand-in for childhood – and they’ll signify the congregation. The paintings function as feminine saints. At the opening there will be a performance work that will portray an unresurrected god. I’ll be wearing clothing and hanging from a noose covered in black glitter for two hours.

And at 7 o’clock [during the opening] the major painting ‘Delivered’ will be turned upside down.

Why are you setting the exhibition up like a church? Where does your interest in religion come from?
The idea of ‘faith not found’ is something I use as an access point into the human condition. I’m not working with the idea of loss of faith, and making a comment on when faith is found doesn’t really interest me. I’ve been thinking about the pursuit of faith and how disorientating the sensations that can arise from that pursuit can be.

Is faith not found something that you’ve been dealing with in your own life?
I would say it’s my state of existence. I suppose it’s autobiographical.

The inversion of ‘Delivered’ during the opening sounds like it will be quite a potent gesture. What are you hoping to achieve with it?
This painting is significant because it embodies the adverse side to female self-objectification … By turning it I mean to create a kind of momentum, like a pendulum, that references my swinging perception on female self-objectification.

We went to a park in Northcote [in Melbourne]. It was a relatively fast photo shoot and it was quite visceral – they were being quite forceful with getting the vegetables down my throat … I don’t think I want to destroy the ambiguity in that work but I made it after I wrote the artist statement so everything that was happening in the show was very conscious. And I think that’s why these ideas [on female self-objectification] are more embedded in this work than some of the others, which are more celebratory.

On the one hand your position seems quite pragmatic, but is it ideal? Is there a way out for women?
I’m in a position where I can’t make a judgement on that because I am it now. It’s very difficult for me to judge what I’ve internalised and to see that as a loss of [the] feminine. I have to see myself as a new amalgamation that is what it is.

Have these issues – of the gaze and power – influenced your path in the art world and your career as well? I’m conscious of the fact you’re a young woman painting about sexuality. Have you faced sexism as a result?
Yes, but it’s really hard to go into without being confessional. Sexism in the art world, you just have to look at the statistics, it’s there. But everybody feels like they’re disadvantaged and struggling – men, women, minorities – everyone feels like they are at a disadvantage in the art world.

Can you talk a little bit about why you paint young women and how you see this self-objectification?
I tend to shift back and forth between two opposing positions. When I consider that we experience history through the eyes of the male, and in art that’s called the male gaze, I wonder, if had there been the opportunity, if some of that gaze would have fallen naturally into the feminine. I mean to say there’s a portion of the male gaze and the female gaze that overlap. When I sexualise a woman in a painting, I’m interested in claiming that portion back, owning it, even celebrating it as feminine.

I’m contesting that the visual objectification of the female body is inherently patriarchal. Though the alternate perspective is that despite being female, I’m a male painter painting women – that the male psyche is so embedded in me unconsciously, that I’m the product of an almost Darwinian shift, a female who’s adopted her perception of the male psyche. And of course that’s different from actually being male in lots of ways because it’s my perception of maleness. Also, because I am physically and consciously a female, I give myself free rein over the female body in a way that men largely don’t, post-feminism.

On the one hand your position seems quite pragmatic, but is it ideal? Is there a way out for women?
I’m in a position where I can’t make a judgement on that because I am it now. It’s very difficult for me to judge what I’ve internalised and to see that as a loss of [the] feminine. I have to see myself as a new amalgamation that is what it is.

So it’s another way of talking about faith not found?
Yes exactly.

What’s next for you?
Next year I’m taking part in a Residency Unlimited tutorial program for six months in New York. I plan on making a body of work based on some site-responsive research and some travel. I’m going to visit the polygamist Mormons on the border of Utah and Arizona for three months. I’m going to be interviewing some street preachers. I’ve organised an interview with Jason Bartel in Wisconsin who was a member of Heaven’s Gate for years and years – Heaven’s Gate was the largest mass suicide on American soil – and he still believes in the Heaven’s Gate prophecy. I’ll also be interviewing some ex-members of the Children of God, a cult which encouraged people to masturbate about Jesus and used sex to recruit new members. I’m also going to try to do a photo shoot and painting of Ron Jeremy. I think he’s sort of changed the transgressive nature of pornography. He was a porn star who always left his socks on.

Sophia Hewson is represented by [MARS] Gallery, Melbourne

[MARS] Gallery, Melbourne
Until 19 November, 2014

Images courtesy the artist and [MARS] Gallery, Melbourne

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