Standing in front of the art of Elsa Rouy for the first time, sensations of awe, empathy and a prudish fascination washed over me. Rouy’s large, life-like yet distorted depictions of human rawness both repulse and tantalise, equally as unsettling as empowering to see our own nature reflected back at us. I was instantly obsessed, yet further thought led me to understand just how magical Rouy’s paintings truly are. Her artworks are mirrors of personal experience, the imperfect self and the complexities of the human condition. As a viewer, we too imprint our own experience on these works, making them at once individual and collective in their humanity. Toying with both disgust and desire, her portraits are honest in their portrayals of both the complexities and carnalities of being human.
A recent graduate from Camberwell College of Art, Rouy was picked up by Guts Gallery whilst studying, a gallery focused on changing the traditional art business model, which is often a barrier to artists from underrepresented backgrounds. The painter has gone from strength to strength and continues to expand her impressive portfolio with wearable body art, video work and more. We caught up with Rouy to get even deeper under the skin of her visceral artworks.
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Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your practice?
I’m 22, I’m predominantly a painter but sometimes I dabble in sculpture or poetry. I paint in thin layers of acrylic that build sometimes slightly gruesome or provocative – but always sensitive – figures.
Your Instagram bio reads “disgusting and bad art” – a comment you received on social media. How would you best describe your work?
A visual portrayal of abstruse emotions.
You are currently championed by Guts Gallery, a gallery empowering underrepresented voices. Can you tell us more about this partnership and how it has benefitted you as an artist?
The support is the main benefit. Knowing that I have someone encouraging me to push my practice who also believes in it is unparalleled. The relationship is so much more when working with Guts. It's more than just making work for the consumer market. For us, it’s working with the artistic community as a whole.
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You aim for provocation through painting, melding discomfort and disgust with visceral, bodily beauty. What emotions do you hope to invoke in your audience?
Recently, my aim for invoking specific emotions within my audience has shifted. I used to be very set on the idea that my work is this specific image, so it should make the viewer feel this emotion or sensation. This could be disgust or allure etc. Now, I aim towards a much less binary idea of how my work should be viewed. Having had conversations about my work, I have realised that the viewers always take a much more personal meaning from each artwork. Usually reflecting their specific circumstances. This is much more provocative than me demanding an emotion from a viewer, especially as my artwork is changing and starting to deal with harder, serious subjects.
Your works are created through a markedly feminine lens. In your opinion, what is the power and nuance of the female gaze?
That’s an incredibly hard question for me to answer, especially in a few sentences. I think the reason my work comes from a feminine lens isn’t that purposeful. I relay my experiences which are subsequently a form of the female gaze. My female experience has left an incredibly hard shell that, at its core, is strong but also soft, sad and gentle. There's this feeling of complete autonomy within myself, overarched by feeling perpetually lost because there's such a lack of control over my life. But this may not be how it is for others. I think that is the power of the female gaze, the diversity within it and how varied it can be depending on the person. However, there’s a binding familiarity within the wide spectrum of views. The similarity is that the female gaze is a threat to societal norms and current prejudices.
Female sexual expression and the imperfect self are often centred in your portraits. Why are these important topics for you to explore?
They’re important because both themes are personal to me and are not often used in a joint dialogue where the woman is not the villain. I want to show figures that can be dual-natured. Figures who can have prominent sexuality, who are killers, who are lovers, who are gentle, who are dominant and who are submissive. I aim for them to be provocative with their bodies and emotions while also elusive to their true meaning. A woman, let alone any person, is not a static being that fits into boxes. I want to highlight the fluidity of personhood in all its desirable and undesirable traits.
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Shame, guilt and the conundrum of immorality permeate each painting. Personally, I believe these emotions link very much to female sexuality in a patriarchal society, another key theme in your artwork. Is this also a linking factor for you?
These themes are usually explored outside the bounds of sexuality within my work, using the body and sex as anchors to depict emotions as the body is easy to read, especially when perverted. Perhaps I find these emotions easy to express through the body because there is a patriarchal code in which I’m expected to act socially and sexually. But honestly, I’ve never really figured out what that’s meant to be, so I stopped trying to. What you see in my paintings is, most likely, the reflection of my apathy.
Your works critique and subvert mainstream representations of women. Why is this important to depict in art?
It’s important to subvert mainstream ideals as they usually aren’t based in reality, creating expectations that can rarely be lived up to. It's important in art as art is a visual language that can be easily received by viewers.
Your artworks are often semi-biographical. What has artmaking offered you in terms of self-exploration, understanding and release?
It’s been really beneficial in helping me process a lot of things. Sometimes I can find it quite hard to understand my emotions regarding life events. It's important to self-reflect, so I do this in my artwork. There are small parts of the paintings that may seem insignificant but are meaningful to me. However, work based on personal emotions can have the tendency to be boring as it's centred on self-interest. So as much as the work is inspired by myself, I hold it at arm’s length and make a boundary because I am not my work. I like to focus on the painting as an object: the process and the creative outcome.
You have been involved in a variety of exhibitions as of late, including a group show with the fantastic Harley Weir. Can you tell us more about your recent shows and any upcoming ones we can catch?
The show with Harley Weir was actually a show that was organised and curated by myself and Lucia Farrow. Lucia and I had been planning a collaboration for a year to showcase our wearable body art after Lucia approached me with the idea. Harley was kind enough to agree to document us wearing the works to include in the show. I am forever grateful; they were such beautiful results. That show, titled Salt and Mud, is one of my proudest moments. The outcome was so successful, and a huge task to execute as it was mine and Lucia's curational début, starting the project when we were both 21.
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