Maisie Cousins makes images that pulsate. They are voluptuous whether they contain bright-eyed women muddied up with something unsanitary, or phallic blooms of peonies being violated by the artist’s fingers.
Coming across Maisie’s feed on Instagram evokes a visceral response—you won’t be able to pull your eyes away, no matter how squeamish the images make you. Somewhere between Cindy Sherman’s performative portraits and Hans Peter Feldmann’s near-plastic poseys lie the photos created by this 23-year-old Londoner who likes to explode paint onto aluminum and then binge-clean her flat.
Maisie is a pretty unapologetic human. When someone decides to take aversion to some body hair or stretch marks on show by commenting negatively on her Instagram, well, let’s just say she’s over it. “I don’t give a shit,” she says. “I think it’s funny. You go on their pages and you see they’re 14 and from Texas. I’m not going to bump into them. Our worlds aren’t going to collide.”
Maisie completed her fine art photography undergraduate degree at Brighton University, but hated it. So she moved back to London and started to make and make, non-stop. A thoroughly modern practitioner, Instagram provides the means to decimate and create her pieces, she uses the platform both to scout women for her photographs and to prompt creative partnerships with anyone, anywhere. Her psychedelic, hedonistic vibes have, unsurprisingly, attracted the attention of the fashion industry and the photographer has dabbled in editorial shoots. “I don’t care about fashion at all,” she says frankly, “but there’s such a blur between fashion photography and art photography that you can sort of do whatever you want.”
But it’s still Instagram that constitutes the epicenter of her artistic universe. The platform has even impacted her shooting style, she concedes. “I shoot a lot of macro and I want everything close up. It looks much better online.”
“Instagram is obviously just a fad, like every other social media platform. So I think if you make your work just for Instagram, then you’re fucking yourself over a bit. It’s nice because soon there will be something new and that’ll be really fun to play with as well. I’m actually quite excited for the next thing, whatever that’ll be.”
Cousins isn’t waiting for a technical or trend-driven change to revolutionize her process though—last year the Tate prompted a revelation when it commissioned her to respond to a painting by Nathaniel Bacon. “It was of a cookmaid with all these saucy vegetables around her—well up my street,” says Cousins. The project saw her create “lots of macro videos of sensual looking fruits and flowers,” which were then displayed on screens, four metres tall. Cousins was excited by the scale in comparison to the 4-inch gallery via which most people view her work. “I feel like I can just churn stills out constantly and it’s not that satisfying anymore,” says Cousins. “It’s got to be moving, or about scale.”
Maisie’s visceral body of work
Exploring the beautiful and the grotesque
“I’m really aware and quite conscious about how photography is such a big power play.”
The thought of seeing more of Cousins’ most fleshy, bound and clawingly physical pieces at that size is an exciting prospect. It’s her pictures of women that make for a particularly voyeuristic viewing experience; one that would only be enhanced through sizing up.
Given Maisie’s provocative visual language, it’s unsurprising that there are elements of both playfulness and dominance in her work. And this is perhaps why she is at pains to be collaborative when photographing models, as she fears overstepping the boundaries of consent generously provided to her.
“I’m really aware and quite conscious about how photography is such a big power play,” she says. “No matter how you go about it, even when my models are fully up for everything and they love it and they have a good time, I’ve still got all the power and it’s something that creeps me out a bit about photography. It unsettles me.”
Thankfully, none of Cousins’ photographs are unsettling. Uncomfortable, yes; challenging, sometimes. But never are they invasive in a way that’s not wrapped in either gentleness or eroticism. And that’s because she is dutiful in considering her responsibilities as a young artist. We speak, for instance, about the fact that her models are often quite ‘modelesque’—these are the people that come forward, willing to have their bodies photographed. When I suggest that perhaps she’d be happier using those not as stereotypically attractive, her anxieties, and her impatience with a lot of intentionally ‘shocking’ art, flares.
“It’s not very nice to photograph people because you think they’re ugly,” she argues. “That then makes things weird. The whole ‘that person’s a bit eccentric, I’m going to take their picture’, I don’t really like that. I don’t like a lot of street photography where people take pictures of ‘mad’ people. So I’m in a bit of a situation where maybe aesthetically I would like my models to look a bit more unusual, but that’s kind of wrong.”
“I’ve really, really tried to stop being so lurid.”
This thoughtfulness is accompanied by a full psychic sense of herself – she knows that she couldn’t create a different kind of art if she tried. And she has. “I’ve really, really tried to stop being so lurid. At uni I thought, ‘Oh shit, I want people to take me seriously as an artist, I should use serious colors’. And I couldn’t.”
Her hues and themes are undoubtedly an appealing contrast to the perception the press has of this generation being boring and sensible. As a result, she has become a sort of poster girl for London’s young art scene and was recently awarded a spot on the Dazed 100 list. But she’s bitingly cynical about her status as an up-and-comer. Cousins is steeling herself against transience by becoming aligned with artists like Petra Collins, for whom she contributed to the Babe book, rather than the institutions that publish her work for the guaranteed, nudity-driven clicks.
Hopefully, she’ll make more alliances in this vein when she jets off to the States in the coming year—Cousins’ agent, who she first met when applying snails to her face, is based in New York. “It would be quite nice to be out of my comfort zone, ” she says. “I’m excited about that.”