Femininity, flesh and friendship, Alice Joiner’s perspectives on womanhood.
Building bonds between herself and her sitters, London-based artist Alice Joiner portrays the female form as a mode of empowerment. Initially arriving at photography as a method of healing in a period of turmoil, Alice’s evolving relationship with the medium has led her to combine it with drawing and painting. The resulting work is imbued with a tender sensitivity, as she captures femininity with a raw lens. Alice goes on to paint from these photographs, multiplying them to create a hybrid corporeality that contains glimpses of movement. Growing alongside the women she portrays; Alice’s characterizations contemplate the complexities of identity. She opts for rendering both herself and her sitters unclothed as an avenue to anatomize notions of fragility, intimacy and vulnerability. Opposing a historical male gaze within nude portraiture, she subverts the tropes of sexualization to platform women’s independence, encouraging ownership over one’s own physicality. Prioritizing the comfort of her models, she ensures that the females she features autonomously guide the composition, seeking a collaborative alliance with them. Rooting her figures in domestic settings, fantastical bodies are suspended amongst a duplicated reality, whilst their overlapping flesh conjure the coexistence of beauty and violence. Reflecting on wellbeing and womanhood, Alice’s diaristic practice examines her external ties to materiality whilst instigating inward reflection. Enchanted by the ephemeral nature of the body in flux, Alice seeks solace in an expansive perception of the self.
As a teenager, you began taking photographs in response to your battles with mental health and your recovery process. Did you initially engage in this private practice with the intention to heal yourself or to document what you were going through?
Photography for me was always a way of trying to understand my own condition, without having any knowledge of the reality of my own mental health at the time. Complete obliteration with mental illness led me to the process, which made me feel seen and recognised at a moment in my life where I felt that I needed to be truly invisible. At the time, I was speaking to the world whilst retaining all of my imagery, never showing it to anybody. The silent medium had an immediately visceral quality to it and I was enamoured with it from the second I found a way to speak through the lens. I had boxes of negatives and years of documentation of my eating disorder, and various other battles, that I would capture and then hide away, never looking back until later on. I didn’t see this body of work as significant to my practice until I studied at the Slade and the pieces of the tapestry started weaving themselves together in a serendipitous way. Once I entered recovery, however, I continued to document my life and my experiences in this way, from a place of heightened awareness, and I still do today. It is the way that I record my often-isolated sense of self and my need to feel seen through my own eyes. It is how I feel most at home in myself: spiritually aligned, free and confident. This, by nature, fluctuates. It is a wordless experience that only capturing imagery in impassioned yet fleeting moments in time can convey. It is a filtered form of ecstasy, ephemeral, transitional, fragile and precious, captivated all in one moment and frame. Working in this way, however, pertains to the common recognition that one is often not quite ok, which was certainly a theme in my earlier work. It has been a challenging yet awakening experience to witness my practice and way of working evolve as I have embraced my own healing, heightened sense of self and the drastic and often extreme changes and shifts in my life and relationships since choosing to recover. These experiences are what have galvanized my profound appreciation for women and the relationships I have shared throughout my life. Photography holds different meanings now and I am watching it constantly evolve. The camera and my relationship to it have a life of their own. I perceive this strange, intricately built mechanism to have a sense of self and a lifespan. It is a living, breathing, operating machine that has taught me more about myself than I ever knew possible. I am intimately entwined with my cameras in a magnificently charged way and I hope that this is expressed through the work.
Entering The Slade School of Fine Art, working primarily in drawing and painting, you saw your snapshots purely as references for drawings. What prompted this turning point where you began to perceive these intimate documentations as more than tools, but works in their own right?
It was during a tutorial that I had with the artist Alastair Mackinven who was my second year tutor at the Slade, and whom I am grateful to still have a relationship with today, where I began to understand that the 6 x 4 printed relics dotted around the edge of my paper were conveying deeper meaning that invited intrigue. I was mostly working with large-scale drawings and portraits at the time, and I personally had never considered my photographs to be of enough ‘skill’ or substantial subject matter to be valued as significant work. Coming from a background in art with an emphasis on academicism led to this kind of anxiety. It was this nudge, however, that encouraged me to consider what I was creating from the medium I found I had the least resistance around. I was challenged by my own need to prove myself, and yet the notion of creating powerful and meaningful work from photography, which I found effortless and sometimes even mindless, terrified me.
Elevating the female gaze within nude portraiture, a medium, which has historically been male-dominated, what choices do you make to subvert the objectification of women through their point of view, position and power?
As a female artist, you are challenging notions within art history, where woman was nature and muse, and man was reason and maker, by simply making art. Working with self-portraiture, as well as working with other female subject matter, is also an iteration of this. You are embodying both sides of the canvas. It is an act, still, of stepping on the toes of masculinity. I take this reality into my work with me, heavily, and I am always conscious of the fact that works of the female nude within art history have been created by mostly white male artists. In order to subvert the male-gaze I have to ensure that I am taking full ownership of the ways in which I am documenting women, remembering always that I am a white female artist, inherently retaining privilege. I place great emphasis on women being comfortable with the outcome of our work together, and of feeling empowered as much as possible throughout the process. It is, after all, a huge collaboration. Working from a heightened perspective, literally standing above a reclined woman is one of the most powerful stances you can take as an individual, and it is one that should not be abused or manipulated, as often is by male photographers. For me, it is one of the most intimate ways in which you can photograph a woman, one that I wanted to make sure I was laying claim to as a female artist, almost protecting the lens upon which we are seen through and retaining what is rightfully ours. It is a process of meeting halfway, an act of real vulnerability, and taking ownership as women of the freedom to express ourselves intimately. It also places a huge amount of pressure on my perspective because I feel a responsibility to ensure that I am safeguarding my depictions of women, protecting them throughout, whilst also allowing them to define their inherent power.
Expressing your propensity for depicting women’s bodies in a naturalistic way, would you recognise this as a rebellion against traditional beauty standards? What do you hope to achieve in representing the female form through such a raw lens?
Beauty is an entirely subjective perception that has been heavily impacted by the overworked neuroses of society. We are so saturated with false beauty standards that I am left craving freedom from these false and unrealistic expectations. The act of drawing, and especially painting, is such a raw and often animalistic way of recreating human physicality that I can only understand working with the figure in its purest form. I am interested in the humanness of the women I work with. Their bodies are the homes they choose to share with me. I ask them to be their most authentic selves and to be as naked as they feel comfortable, and this doesn’t necessarily mean without clothing, but it naturally invites sensibility. I want to ensure that the work is reflective of their female embodiment, and it isn’t simply a portrait of somebody. It needs to feel owned and powerful, tactile yet equally untouchable.
When shooting, you are deeply concerned that your sitters are as comfortable as possible. Is this rooted in your previous struggle to feel at one with your own body? What effect do you see of the homely setting on the restful mood of the resulting images?
I know from my own self-portraiture and previous experiences how much you have to trust the lens and, most importantly, the individual behind it. Often, the most efficient way to capture an individual in their most relaxed and grounded state is in their place of domesticity, frequently lying down. This also immediately initiates a sense of intimacy and a lack of performance because it requires them to do very little and to settle into being. The frame is theirs, they may use it how they feel best, but it is always a form of communication between two people. They are aware of another woman on the other side of the camera and this sense of trust exudes through the imagery. The length of time it takes to capture a portrait that moves me, or an essence of a woman that feels viscerally familiar, is almost instantaneous and it feels effortless, because it is.
Do you deem the vast amount of time and space in lockdown the most prominent factor that initiated your return to the intricate processes of drawing and painting?
I was working on the larger drawings that I finalised recently prior to lockdown. When it was instated, however, it created a very intense period where I felt the need to be productive and to maintain structure in my life. I treated it as a period where I worked proactively for no other outcome other than to finish what I had started. It proved to be an arduous process because of the labour intensive work, but it all fed into the body of what I was creating. I was led into oil painting because I was craving a more physical enactment of the recreation of flesh. Painting is sculptural for me and it is a very heated process where the brush leads straight to the heart. It is equal parts painful and beautiful and so the work ends up layered with heightened emotion. Lockdown certainly mirrored these qualities of intensity and a need to find meaning. As I write this, we have just embarked on our second national lockdown, and I can feel myself gearing up for another month or so of impassioned and intense work making, hoping to find meaning again in the midst of chaos.
The action of taking pictures freezes single instants, while paintings are rendered over longer periods. Switching between these avenues, what relations do you observe between the amounts of time that you spend materialising a piece and the decisions that you make within it?
Photography is instantaneous and I am incredibly fast when photographing myself or another person. I lack self-belief if I am spending time trying to plan anything out in this sense. Working from impulse and intuition has never failed me. It is your ego that destroys all pure innovation. The process of making work, in many ways, is about stripping back the layers of your ego so that you can access the parts of you that intuitively know how to operate. Painting and drawing, however, require a certain amount of planning, although I am still impulsive with the subject and images I choose. I am impatient, and when I have an idea I want to produce it as quickly as possible, which is why these two mediums challenge me so much. Working with my hands in this way, I am recreating layers of flesh and tones, highlights, shadows, muscles and bone structure, but they require many hours and moments of reflection. It is all about the recreation of this person’s physicality, and creating a sense of solidity and familiarity. The time it takes is both arduous and intimate. I am incredibly connected to the makeup of this person; I understand every arch and dip of their body, the bridge of their nose, the bow of their lip. It is intimacy in a place of isolation. This is what my work has always been about and so lockdown heightened the process. It brings me back to the notion that art is survival. Art bridges the gap between life and death and it is an attempt to understand our own mortality and the fleeting time we have on this earth. It is a way to understand the physicality of other human beings, studying them so that you are never quite alone. This is one of the ways that I feel intimate with the world when I have chosen such an isolated profession.
‘The Falling (Caught), 2020’ is a self-portrait created in a time of social distancing, where it was complex to document external bodies. Have restrictions on social contact lead to long-term changes in your practice?
This self-portrait was produced from an initial idea I had, which could have used another female form as the subject matter at the time, but it ended up being a very powerful and transformative process as a result of using myself due to the restrictions of lockdown. I will most likely always work between self- portraiture and focusing on other individuals unanimously, and so in this light it hasn’t impacted my practice, but the process was incredibly profound and deeply impactful. I felt challenged by painting myself. The form of the painting also hints at the violence of overlapping and falling bodies within art history that were painted by male painters such as Titian and Michelangelo. Returning to the previous notion of being a female artist and painter, and stepping on the toes of masculinity, this became even more significant because I was working with a sort of brutality as well as self-portraiture. This, for me, is always about symbolising a certain discomfort. Taking the myths of femininity and using layered, falling flesh to outline this was an attempt to highlight the mental components that led to this creation.
In this piece, you painted a note on which is written, “Don’t leave yourself behind”, implying that the person it is addressed to is going through an identity crisis. What role does the sentiment of being lost in oneself take when juxtaposed with the falling figure that populates the image?
The notion behind ‘The Falling (Caught), 2020’ was to produce a piece of work that conveyed a sense of falling away from ones-self. It is about staggering female identity and feeling a sense of detachment, alienation and a loss of internal solidity. It comments on the many facades and personas we must have as women to please, perform and succeed in this society. It is about the masks we wear and the need to meet expectations. It is also about returning to the naked body in times of distress and entanglement as a way of embracing a primitive and spiritually heightened state, in order to feel more connected to your true nature. It is a return to one’s rawest self, and it was born from a place of experience. Being a 26-year-old woman, I am presently witnessing firsthand my own sense of identity dispersing as I approach the end of this decade in my 20’s. The old-self who I felt I needed to be in my adolescence in order to survive and maintain relationships and to feel worthy is being destroyed, and a higher self is coming forward as I evolve further into womanhood, where my motherhood, fertility, and career are being emphasised with increasing vitality. I am experiencing a tension between my adult-self and my younger-self, as a new identity forms, still travelling through the process in the knowledge that I will one day find the solidity of ‘who I really am’. It is this uncertainty, however, that has led to this sense of dispersion of self.
Commonly featuring overlapping replicas of a single anatomy, do you seek to characterize multiplicity within the self as an expansive state, or as one where the body and mind are discordant with each other? Does it have a visceral effect to be manipulating flesh in this way?
I see the multiplicity of forms as being both expansive and incongruous with one another. It is about conflict with the self. This is at once an opportunity for liberation and freedom from the self, as well as a chance to express the increased chaos, conflict and isolation often experienced. I personally feel as though I am mirroring a feeling of separation from my sense of self in this way, but it is equally liberating to express and convey.
There is a balance between reality and fantasy in your drawings and paintings, as warped versions of forms are suspended in mundane environments. What meaning do you draw from recreating the real, while fabricating the unreal, through interrogations of the space in between illusion and perception?
I am always playing between fantasy and reality. As soon as the pencil or the paintbrush touches the canvas I can never steer myself away from attempting to create the reality of the subject matter in front of me, yet never being able to fully achieve it. The fantasy is what I am always left with, as though I am living in a cartoon or a dream-like state, when you dream of somebody familiar, but the figure is never exactly ‘them’. It comments on the desperate plea I have to recreate from memory and to reconfigure these memories of people and relationships, piecing them together through pictorial form.
Considering that self-portraiture helps to see yourself in a new light and that it is a mode of empowerment for you, what does the vulnerability of exposing your private self in the public sphere bring to these works? Is it more emotionally charged to perform as your own muse compared to portraying others?
In contrast to my work, I am a very private person. I rarely share content of my life or relationships online, other than through the pieces I create. Because of this, I am in full control of what I choose to share and how I decide to convey this. Due to the high-level of uncertainty I find with Instagram, for example, and the reality that you are behaving as part of a delusion through your single pursuit for human connection, I am often hesitant. I am essentially sharing the most intimate parts of myself with the illusion of another. It is a conflict I experience daily, and I feel a huge sense of self-protection with how much of myself I share and how I see fit to share it. There are many photographs I have never shared because I have my own boundaries of where the intimacy stops and over-exposure begins. This, of course, applies to both images of myself and of other women. It is a crucial boundary that is up for constant negotiation whenever you create something boldly intimate and it always comes down to the risk of sharing yourself with an idea of somebody on the other side, as opposed to real human interaction. It has the ability to destroy all life force in your work, if you allow it, but self-preservation at the last hurdle can retain that empowerment that led you to the camera in the first place. As well as this, my self-portraiture, first and foremost, is always diaristic before it becomes the ‘work’. It can be elevated to the status of work after, but the process is always the same. I rarely use self-portraiture for the sake of making work. I always create from a place of personal necessity and I feel fortunate that this, in essence, is the body of what I create.
Having a personal rapport with all those who you portray, does recreating familiar flesh increase the intimacy within the relationship or does it lead to a clinical process of analytical detachment?
This can lead to both because you are often spending months recreating a depiction of an individual. The intimacy lies in my re-enactment of their form and the knowledge I have of their physicality. Contrastingly, this is created in complete isolation and is usually over a period of separation, so you are forming an artificial relationship with the subject matter that is also a delusion and has no real impact on the reality of your relationship.
Given your custom of revisiting sitters over time, what insights do you hope to gain about a person’s growth through the evolution of their physicality?
My work essentially documents my personal evolution into womanhood. I age as the subject ages, even though I am freezing and recreating a fleeting moment in time. I believe that I will evolve as my subject matter does, including the process of ageing and constant transformation, both mentally and physically.
What impact does the coexistence of life and death, love and pain, and violence and beauty have upon the scenes that you devise? Do you intend to invoke these polarised ideas simultaneously?
I always intend to convey these notions and realities. The human experience consists of each of these qualities in unison. You often cannot undergo or appreciate one without the other. It is the dualities of life and death, pleasure and pain and awakening and suffering that contextualise life and brings meaning into our own human existence.
In recent works you have explored collaging photographs with paintings, causing you to alter pieces, which you previously believed finalised. Do these ongoing modifications mirror a constantly fluctuating self?
They do and this is also my continued attempt to merge the three mediums of drawing, painting and photography. I am always focusing on producing a body of work which is cohesive, whilst also exploring the depths of all three mediums and how they relate to my practice. I am often cohabitating a space with my work. In this light, I am consistently recognising shifts in my perception and a need to alter the reality of the piece as it evolves with me. It is a constant mirror as I watch my insight, standards and necessities change until I feel ready to move away from it and travel into a new experience.
In response to ‘Nina’ a figurative print from 2017 that was returned to you with damage, you superimposed a second face over the ruptured area. Is the overlaying of these fragmented images a comment on the multiple masks of a woman’s persona?
I wanted to challenge the portrait that I had previously created and I saw this as a great opportunity to take a risk. Painting onto a 60 x 50-inch-wide analogue print felt like I was essentially burning money, as this is a one-of-a-kind print, yet the damage already imposed gave me confidence in this being a successful process that could potentially lead to greater outcomes. There was a freedom already inviting me in to destroy, only to recreate. I wanted to focus on a sense of split identity and perceptions, which is also reflected in the broken flesh that I have painted on her face. Choosing not to fill this in, I wanted to indicate the sense of lands merging or separating in one female mass. The repetition of faces indicates that this individual has multiple facades that exist further beyond the canvas, or the print in this case.
Most of the figures you portray are young women. In your view, is their current stage as a transitional moment, which will remain a constant motif, will the females in your work age too as you get older?
The work is always self-reflective, even when working on a portrait of another woman. As I evolve and age, so will the subject matter. It is about attempting to understand my identity as a woman, and the profound isolation that has come with that process.
Having transitioned between a number of approaches, what do you see as your primary focus? What material inquiries will you instigate to combine these varied areas of interest?
I am focused on evolving my exploration of female identity further, continuing my fascination with female physicality and using whichever medium poses the greatest tactility and success in achieving this. I will always retain my relationship with photography, continuing to document in a diaristic way, and first and foremost creating from the lens to capture the rawness of intimacy in relationships. This route of exploration consistently intrigues me. Because of my experiences with mental health and womanhood, I feel this will never retreat for me and it will be dictated by my continuous personal experiences, mirrored back into the breadth of my practice. The less I experience, the less I have to create. The more I evolve and develop an interface with new experiences and relationships, and witness my own development, the more I have to contextualise this body of work that naturally wants to manifest.
Words by Vanessa Murrell