Subvert + rework
As the mass of illicit images of women online continues to grow by the day, it offers a painful reflection on both the way society vapidly consumes media, and the male gaze domination over public perception of the female form. Angela Santana is embracing those very images as her muse in her latest exhibition at Saatchi Yates, rejecting the social narrative placed upon them in an artful role reversal of power dynamics. The Swiss-born artist’s work focuses on refashioning the archetype of the female nude as an artistic notion historically established by male artists over centuries of tradition – now the female body is rightfully being transformed from object to subject. Approaching art through a gendered lens in the 21st Century should not be important, but Santana’s investigation into these historical allegations is central to understanding how we arrived at the modern-day perception of femininity.
Disrupting traditions in more ways than one, Santana’s technique sees her combine layers of digital artwork and found images before reworking them onto large-scale oil-painted canvases. The experimental nature of her artistic practice mirrors the liberating nature of her subject matter, both lending a voice to new ways of thinking. With a colour palette rich in vibrancy and eclectic hues, the series consists of over fourteen paintings carefully curated to reject the male fantasy. Inspired by the likes of Cecily Brown and Willem de Kooning, Santana pushes the human form into abstraction as far as she possibly can, moulding our perspective as she goes.
‘Love Is Now’ by Angela Santana, 2016
Ella Joyce: How did you arrive at the idea of refashioning the archetype of the female nude?
Angela Santana: I was always really interested in art history. History itself made sense for me because of art history, I’ve had such a big interest since the beginning, even before art school. My interests in female history and the female body both in a social and political sense always came together in my practice. I’ve always been interested in combining techniques too, especially oil and digital painting – it just all [clicked] in this series. It started about seven years ago in London and now here we are.
EJ: I didn’t realise you began it in London, it must feel like things have come completely full circle.
AS: Absolutely full circle, you just nailed it. I arrived at the show and thought, “Oh my god this feels so surreal.” It felt even more full circle because I really loved going to the Saatchi Gallery when I was in London, I even told that story to Charles [Saatchi]. I was so inspired by the scale and importance of the works I saw there and so in some ways, it inspired this series as well. It feels amazing now having Charles, Phoebe and Arthur [Saatchi-Yates] involved in this.
“The female form can be powerful and not pleasing.”
EJ: Your work focuses on reclaiming the mass of illicit images of women online and reinterpreting them through the female gaze, how did you curate this concept?
AS: Rather than going about it the classical way of having a model sitting for me, I felt like there was such a big comment to be made and a story to be told by observing what is online and what is being consumed without even questioning the ethics. We consume so many images every day, I just felt there was a point to be made by giving them importance rather than just consuming them and not questioning our behaviour. I like to take something society doesn’t necessarily value and create something new out of it.
‘Spearmint Success’ by Angela Santana, 2017
EJ: Combining digital processes with oil painting is such an interesting juxtaposition of techniques, can you tell us more about how you pair these?
AS: Even when I think back to my art school years and what I did then, I was so interested in finding my own artistic and visual language – I was always combining and experimenting. I really want to highlight the word ‘experiment’ because I’m not necessarily using tools the way they are meant to be. For example, Photoshop is so often used in perfecting and smoothing out when retouching, I’m really not interested in that. I want to use it in a much more experimental, vibrant and creative way.
I love having found my own balance in this series. I start with a digital thumbnail which speaks to me and then I paint in layers, by the end I have hundreds of layers in one painting, but that’s only the beginning. I then start shifting those layers. I’m really interested in moving them around and surprising myself until something new emerges, because having these layers painted really allows me to play with the composition – zoom in, turn things around, experiment with colours – everything is possible. It’s so freeing for me to work this way, it’s really exciting and I never feel like I have a blank canvas. I constantly surprise myself, the story behind why I came up with this technique is because I was always interested in painting the female form but I just felt I already knew what would come out when I started. That wasn’t exciting to me, I really wanted to come up with something new beyond my imagination and I also felt like our imagination has been so fuelled by all the images we have seen beforehand. I didn’t want to copy that, I wanted to make it my own.
EJ: The ethos behind the method goes hand-in-hand with the concept behind the images themselves.
AS: Exactly, It comments also on the history of the female form as being something pleasing, it all ties together.
EJ: Let’s chat about the history side of things. Although approaching art in a gendered manner shouldn’t be important, it is impossible to ignore that historically the male gaze has always dominated the way women have been perceived. How does it feel to be a female artist changing this narrative?
AS: It really feels liberating and powerful. That’s the main point why I started this, to allow all of these emotions and feelings to liberate how we can be seen. It doesn’t always have to be pleasing, it’s so nice to be allowed to be powerful and have a whole spectrum of emotions. You are so right about gender, I really don’t try to gender this and I think it is such a big point to be made. People always still say things like, “This brushstroke feels so masculine,” but I don’t know what that is. I really want to open up this conversation.
‘Monument’ by Angela Santana, 2018
“We consume so many images every day, I just felt there was a point to be made by giving them importance rather than just consuming them and not questioning our behaviour.”
EJ: In terms of the dynamic between the digital age of the internet and its relationship with art, how do you see this progressing as time goes on?
AS: I think I will always be fuelled by it, this series is also a huge comment on consumerism and capitalism in general. I think there is always going to be a point to be made because it always feels as if the pace at which we consume images will only continue to accelerate. That is why I always see a future in this series because I can slow this down, observe and make a comment on it. Also, because my whole process is quite long and time-consuming it is such a nice meditation on questioning if everything needs to be immediate and throwaway rather than stopping and focusing on something else, something that is maybe still valuable years from now. It’s really important to know we don’t have to sign up to this pace, it’s so much more important to question what we are here for.
EJ: You mentioned earlier about developing your own style, were there any artists in particular who were very influential for you in your formative years?
AS: It’s hard to name them all because there are so many works of art history, and contemporary work, too. Two I really admire are Cecily Brown and Willem de Kooning because it’s not just about representing the figure but really pushing the boundaries of what is possible to be human. The human figure of today is massively inspiring to me, just being able to push the figure into abstraction. Sometimes even when I work digitally and paint I think of the freedom Kooning has in the brushstroke, it’s very untamed and wild.
‘Delta of Venus’ by Angela Santana, 2020
“I also felt like our imagination has been so fuelled by all the images we have seen beforehand. I didn’t want to copy that, I wanted to make it my own.”
EJ: What is it you hope people take away from this series?
AS: I really think if something is touching you in whatever way, whether you like it or there is some kind of emotion I can stir up or inspire, then that is great. Ultimately, I want to open up the idea of the figure today having the possibility to be so many things. The female form can be powerful and not pleasing, I think that is the biggest takeaway for me.
Angela Santana’s solo exhibition at Saatchi Yates runs until 31st August, more info here.