The Artist and Her MUSE: A conversation with Shona McAndrew
Oct 24, 2019
The first time I encountered Shona McAndrew’s work was in the room The Staging of Vulnerability, curated by Allison Zuckerman, at the 2017 SPRING/BREAK Art Show. I immediately was drawn to her work, the multiple mediums of her art practice, and the warmth and confidence that radiates from each of the women she depicts. Somehow through fate I posted her work on Instagram and we became online friends; mutually appreciating each other’s accomplishments, giving each other advice, sending cat photos, and even having Shona encourage me in my own art practice.
It was this base of friendship, of mutual trust and admiration, that when Shona asked if I would send her a nude of myself, based on her own nude self-portrait, for her to paint me for her solo show MUSE, I immediately said “YAS!”. The experience of being an artist’s muse, in particular one of Shona’s, was a special and unique experience. By letting myself be seen at my most vulnerable, literally being photographed naked playing with my cats in my bathroom, at first made me nervous. Not only did I trust her to see me completely exposed, but I was also putting my likeness in her hands, for her to depict for the whole world to see. As a person living in recovery from eating disorders, I was bit anxious to see the final result.
Seeing myself through Shona’s eyes in Alexandria (2019), took my breath away. At the opening we held each other and I teared up because this experience of being seen by her meant so much. I told her, “You have depicted me how I wish I saw myself every day; you make me feel beautiful and so seen. Thank you so much for this.”
With that being said, as a writer I soon realized that I was in the unique position of being the subject of a work of art, and I could not resist the opportunity to interview Shona McAndrew for eazel about this body of work that is currently on view in MUSE, curated by Maria Brito at CHART, New York, NY
Alexandria Deters (Alexandria): The paintings in your show MUSE are named after the women they depict, Jay, Daniela, Caroline, Alyssa, Deka, Alina, Cheyenne, Asia, and myself. Can you tell me what made you want to reach out to these for this series?
Shona McAndrew (Shona): Each and everyone of these women are special to me in their own way. I’ve crossed paths with them at one point in time in my life, and was marked in unique, unforgettable ways. Most of these women are artists or involved in the art world, naturally expressive and creative. They all have a loud and distinct voice, something that I deeply appreciate and respect. These muses present themselves as genuine expressions of womanhood that I wanted to share. The number of women who have reached out to me to tell me that they see themselves in my paintings and in the models makes me know that I’m in the right path.
Alexandria: It was such a wonderful experience having you paint me and be a part of this show. I felt so safe and so seen. What was it like for you as the artist, and friend, painting your muses?
Shona: I’m so touched to hear this Alexandria, that’s exactly what I want you to feel. I am so honored and excited that I am able to help someone feel this way, it’s one of the biggest reasons why I started this project in the first place. It was definitely a big responsibility to paint these portraits. Not just because of where they were going to be shown and the audience they were going to have, but because of my respect for the muses. For these women to share themselves with me, and to trust me with these vulnerable images and captured moments truly moved me!
Alexandria: Is there a favorite artist and muse duo that inspires you, or inspired this series?
Shona: There is a long and fraught history of male artists objectifying and using female models to manufacture desire, discarding their ‘muse’ as soon as a perfected image of desire has been realized. I wanted to subvert that lineage of the idealized female nude and present a much more human and vulnerable individual instead.
As far as my own personal muses, unapologetic and confident women inspire me. As such, Lizzo and Hannah Gadsby have become two loud voices in the back of my head.
Alexandria: The poses that your ‘muses’ recreate are based on poses you recreated poses from famous art history paintings. Can you tell me what paintings each of your muses replicated and what made you ask those poses for those models?
Shona: The poses were all taken from 19th century Harem paintings. In these paintings, the women are all waiting to being activated by someone else. I sometimes think of art history as the porn of history, when men wanted to look at a “beautiful” woman they’d get a painting of a passive nude woman to hang on their wall. Especially harem paintings, which is a painfully direct representation of the objectified exotic woman. So to subvert these poses, creating more genuine and individual portraits of women felt like the response needed today.
Alexandria: Your sculptures in MUSE, while also based on women that inspire you in your life, are not based on a single person like your paintings (in this show). Do you think you’ll do a large scale sculpture of a friend? Why or why not?
Shona: All of my sculptures are inspired by friends of mine. Though the sculptures are not direct representations of these women, the work tries to realize their essence, energy or attitude. I like to think of my sculptures as homages to these women.
Alexandria: There are a lot of cats in your paintings. Something as a cat lady, I love! Can you tell me more about why you like to include animals in your work, in particular your paintings in MUSE?
Shona: The term “cat lady” has so many loaded connotations that I wanted to play with in my work. I think it has become this sexist idea of a sad spinster, unable to find love, so she adopts cats to fill the void in her heart. However, as ‘cat ladies,’ we both know the truth. We both have cats because we wanted to have a cat in our lives. Nothing more or less. Also, like getting tattoos, living with animals just seems to be something that women of our generation are doing (based on my extremely limited survey data).
Alexandria: For your first solo exhibition in New York you worked closely with the curator, Maria Brito. What was that experience like for you?
Shona: It was a wonderful experience working with Maria. She has been by my side and supporting me for years, since she saw my work at the Museum of Sex in 2017. By the time she came to me with the idea for a show at CHART, she was so knowledgeable about my practice that the concept for the show came together quickly. Everything about the show just seemed to make sense and came together perfectly.
Alexandria: What advice would you give to young curators and artists on how to collaborate successfully, based on your own successful experience?
Shona: I’ve not always had the best experiences, especially in the recent past. But with each experience, the good and the bad, I’ve learned something important. Know who you are working with, check out what they’ve done in the past and what they are going to bring to the table. Especially for artists, we put so much money and time into our art that it’s important to find someone who’s going to treat the experience with as much respect and hard work as you have. The goal for both the artist and curator should be to elevate the art first and foremost. Be clear from the start what your expectations are, and if you can, get yourself a contract. I don’t know how much advice I have for curators!
Shona McAndrew was born in Paris, France in 1990. She lives in Philadelphia, PA and holds an M.F.A. in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI; a Post Baccalaureate in Fine Arts from Brandeis University, Waltham, MA and a B.A. in Psychology and Painting (High Honors) from Brandeis University, Waltham, MA. She has had solo exhibitions at the Moore College of Art and Design, Philadelphia, PA (forthcoming 2020); Pilot Projects, Philadelphia, PA and Extra Credit, Providence RI. She has also exhibited in group shows at Latchkey Gallery New York, NY; Abigail Ogilvy, Boston, MA; 621 Gallery, Tallahassee, FL; Every Woman Biennial, La MaMa Galleria, New York, NY; Juxprojects, Jersey City, NJ; Gallerie Manque, Brooklyn, NY; Wassaic Project, Wassaic, NY; Gallery Gomez, Los Angeles, CA; Leroy Neiman Gallery, Columbia University, New York, NY; NSFW: Female Gaze, Museum of Sex, New York, NY; Little Berlin Gallery, Philadelphia, PA; Field Projects, New York, NY; Nancy Margolis Gallery, New York, NY; Granoff Center of the Art, Brown University, RI; 808 Gallery, Boston, MA; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA.
Shona McAndrew MUSE , curated by Maria Brito, on view through November 2, 2019 at CHART, New York, NY