She’s not yet thirty, but Maisie Cousins’ work is instantly recognisable: mixing the glossy perfection of fashion magazines but turning it upside down with sticky, sinewy mess, seafood platters and glitter and other kinds of food goo that serve as metaphors and send more visceral signals to our senses. Cousins, who is based in London, has exhibited her work at the Tate and at Foam Amsterdam and has put up solo shows at TJ Boulting and Elephant West. Last year she published a zone, Squeezing One Out, with Trolley Books, and she regularly shoots musicians for magazines like The Fader. Her art, she says, is an extension of herself and her playful and pungent interactions with the world.
“I used to film myself on my mum’s 4-megapixel camera, pretending I was a chat show host if that counts!” says Cousins when I ask about the first pictures she took. “Lots of pictures of Barbies hiding in bushes too,” she adds. Even in her early, and apparently desultory, interactions with the camera, Cousins seemed to be probing at traditional depictions of beauty and toying–quite literally–with objectification. She went on to study photography proper at Brighton University, graduating in Fine Art Photography in 2014; not that her work was approved or encouraged by her teachers, as she has since lamented.
Internet platforms for sharing images have been a constant part of what is now Cousins’ professional practice as an artist. “MySpace happened, so aged 14 was all about taking pics of friends and sexy pics!” She says. From MySpace, she moved to Tumblr, where her photographs really took off. In fact, Tumblr has probably shaped the direction of her art more than her degree. Building a following on Tumblr established Cousins very early on, with a print editorial, Tubular Bells, in Vice before she graduated.
Her subjects may have changed over the years, from school friends to the likes of Bjork, who she recently flew out to shoot in New York, but Cousins’ style has been consistent, with her audacious use of colour and salacious use of textures and materials. making her the people she shoots feel “beautiful and cool,” has always been important. Her work might suggest some uncomfortable truths about our bodies and their processes, but she is all about making the shoot experience easy. These days her personal work is less about portraits and more about bodies in an oblique sense. “I’ve felt weird; I don’t like the power I have taking pictures of other people.”
In her most recent exhibition at Elephant West, titled Dipping Sauce — a stone’s throw from where Cousins grew up — she made supersize food photographs, mixed up messes of different foods, glutinous dumplings and additives, the evolution of her photography towards more abstract representations, zoomed in shots of installations she creates from things she indulges in. They’re a celebration of all the things we have available to our senses in a city like London.”Humans were made to consume; that’s why we have holes that things can go in and eyes and ears that absorb. I think rationing things is healthy, but I think minimalism is the devil!”
“I usually know instantly when a photo is ready to be shown to the world”–Cousins explains, from her sick bed–”sometimes a while sometimes not long at all, but usually there’s a sense of relief that I’ve managed to get all the things I need, colour texture and composition.”
Of her tactile approach, Cousins elucidates,”I like things that don’t go together and maybe even react to each other, brings an element of surprise for me. Photography is very controlled; it’s technical. So it’s fun to shoot things out of my control to some extent, bugs, fluids, decomposing things. I like the contrast between the medium of photography which I find very clinical to the festering and messy subjects I use.”
Is there anything that truly disgusts her? “Coleslaw in the tub … and damp, smelly dishcloths”.