Dressed for Desire

Our upcoming Dragon’s Lair Gallery exhibition Dressed for Desire, showcases the latest body of work by Lauren McCartney.

McCartney is a multidisciplinary feminist artist who lives and works on Dharawal Country/Wollongong, New South Wales. Her work parodies objectification and conventions of appropriate female behaviour. She creates situations where the female body is playfully exaggerated to the degree that it becomes a spectacle and an object of laughter, whilst simultaneously disrupting stereotypes and myths about femininity and misbehaviour.

McCartney holds a PhD (2018) through Curtin University and a Bachelor of Creative Arts (2010) (Honours Class I) from the University of Wollongong. Her work has been collected by the Art Gallery of Western Australia. She has exhibited her work, participated in art prizes and residences, and presented on her practice both nationally and internationally.

McCartney made some of the works featured in this exhibition during her residency as a part of the Georges River Artist in Residence program in 2021. During her residency, Lauren McCartney explored women’s subjective guilt and the absurd pressure put on women to spend their supposed ‘free’ time in lockdown to not only survive the current pandemic but to refine our physical bodies as we do so. She created a series of still life photographs of undisturbed and unacknowledged domestic objects stuffed with dough which, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, being an item of inflated value. For the artist, “being able to look out over the river helped my creative process, as did being completely alone for days at a time.”

We were fortunate enough to ask Lauren a few questions about her practice:

Can you please provide an insight into your artistic process? Is your work pre-planned or created intuitively? How long does each work take to complete?

My practice explores how established norms of femininity can be challenged and reinterpreted through unexpected materials. I create beautiful and sensual images of women, which I humorously subvert into the grotesque or uncanny. Over the past few years, I have focused on combining food items with representations of the female body to parody feminine stereotypes. Sticky, wet substances such as dough, whipped cream or butter interest me as feminine materials because of their association with overindulgence, excess, and diet culture.

I created my latest body of work, Dressed for Desire, over two and a half years (2020-2022), primarily during my time in lockdown. With restrictions limiting where I could go and what supplies I could access, I turned to still life photography and video to make art from the confinements of my home. I used dough stuffed vintage vessels to create feminine forms. They expressed my fascination with the media’s offering that women should spend their time in isolation maintaining our bodies, or even losing weight and ‘shaping’ and ‘toning’ our limbs through repetitive exercise. It seemed absurd but not surprising that women were encouraged to focus on this. It has resonated with me that in a terrifying new world of the unknown, it appeared to be more important to appeal to the heteronormative male gaze than it was to survive. 

The work in Dressed for Desire is both pre-planned and based on chance. I collected overtly feminine and kitsch lusterware, glassware and ceramic objects via online markets such as Esty, Marketplace and Gumtree. I obsessed over acquiring them, spending days online scrolling to find vessels to juxtapose with the bloated masses held within them. It can take a few hours to a week to develop the dough and capture its transformation, depending on the texture and colour I am after. I have been working with dough on and off since 2016, and although I am familiar with its qualities, it continues to surprise me in the ever-changing ways it rises, falls, grows and contracts. Chance comes into play when using dough as it never moves in the same way twice.

Image supplied by the artist.

Can you explain your technique; how do you manipulate the medium?

Dough is such a fascinating material to work with. It is alive and forever growing and tumbling out of the vases I stuff it into. It is a feminine material; it is wet, moist, sticky, yeasty, bloated and unpredictable. I aim to offer dough as a material that can be referenced through a feminist understanding of female flesh and fat.

After kneading it, I’ll partially fill a vase with fresh dough and keep it with me for a few hours while I do other things. It’s a bit like looking after a baby or a puppy, I have to keep my eye on it, or it gets loose, growing out of the vase and tumbling before I can capture it with my camera.

Image supplied by the artist.

The texture of the dough changes depending on how warm it is as it rises (summer is the best time of year to make these works), whether it is fresh (full of air bubbles) or old (stretchy and often with a crust over it).

Sometimes I use tools such as q-tips to gently encourage interesting holes to form. I also use scissors to trim off excess material and brush on water to enhance the glistening qualities of the material.  Direct heat from the hair dryer speeds up the drying process and in winter, my dachshunds have had to share the heater’s warmth with the developing dough.

Do you keep some kind of ongoing drawing book or diary? Or a collection of images or photographs for inspiration?

My body and experiences as a woman are the primary sources I draw from in my practice. I see my body as a visual diary with its textures, lumps, scars, movements, possibilities and limitations, which I translate into art. I am interested in how I can express this body I live in, as well as the more collective bodily experiences of women.

I also keep loose digital diaries, mainly consisting of saved posts from Instagram or Reddit that have sparked ideas such as composition, colour combinations, textures, light and shadow, symbolism and expressionisms of femininity. What I collect is not necessarily all artwork. Saved images and accounts on Instagram include interior spaces and objects (such as @__dreamspaces and @aprettycoolhoteltour), interpretations of women’s bodies (such as @brookedidonato and @michaelastark), feminine materials and forms (such as @lauracatherinesoto, @zhuohmu and @jossolini), clips of old movies (I’m currently obsessed with the different textures in the costume and set design of What a Way to Go) and food photography (such as @adventuresinjelly, @lily_vanilli_cake, @qimmyshimmy and @mayabookbinder).

Who are your favourite artists? Who do you draw inspiration from?

Currently, I am interested in the porcelain work of Ebony Russell, where she pipes clay in unexpected ways to create objects that resemble these oozing, wobbly iced forms, evoking femininity, memory and a connection to the past. Her language of materials and symbolism inspires me as cake decoration is traditionally ‘women’s work.’ Iced cake is a symbol of indulgence, excess and celebration- there is nothing moderate about cake or Russell’s delicious work. 

Juno Calypso’s overly feminine palette and use of female figures in her photographs is work I continually refer back to. Her compositions typically consist of Calypso as the fictional character Joyce, posing in domestic spaces, which are styled to be ultra-feminine interior worlds, at times sickly sweet and seductive but also lonely and eerie. There is subtle humour in her work where the figures attempt to live up to feminine perfection and desire but can also be interpreted as exhausted. I am interested in creating a similar tension in my work, building up these beautiful representations of women, which have these unnerving undertones, these sensual failures of femininity.

Other artists whose work inspires me include Nelly Agassi, Patti Chang, Andrea Hasler, Honey Long and Prue Stent, Pipilotti Rist, Mika Rottenberg, Suzanne Saroff, Jana Sterbak and Melati Suryodarmo.

Join us to celebrate the opening of this exhibition on Saturday 29 October 2022, 2.00pm. To RSVP please visit ‘What’s on’ at www.georgesriver.nsw.gov.au/HMG

Dressed for Desire will be on at Hurstville Museum & Gallery from 29 October – 20 November 2022.

Image: Lauren McCartney, Bloom, framed archival pigment print, 2021.

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