Elsa Rouy Talks About Her Art, Shame and Guilt The female Sexual Gaze, Creative Process & More

by Rubén Palma
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London based artist Elsa Rouy, creates images of intense psychological depth

Throughout her oeuvre, physical boundaries seem to dissipate: bodies split and rupture, separate skins seep and melt into one another and leaking bodily fluids drip and mingle together. For Rouy, bodies are in a constant state of ‘becoming,’ they are never static or inert, instead, they are a site of process and flux. Critical theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s formulation of the grotesque body is one that “is not separated from the rest of the world.” For Bakhtin, this kind of body is not “a closed, completed unit;” instead “it is unfinished, [it] outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.” Rouy’s grotesque bodies constantly extend and exceed beyond their own physical bounds. By stressing the parts of the body that represent the osmosis between the exterior, outside world and the interior, bodily world, (the breasts; the genitalia, the mouth and the eyes) Rouy creates a world in which the strict delineation between different bodies is wiped away and effaced.

Text courtesy of GUTS GALLERY.

Hi Elsa! Thank you for sitting down with me. First question that I always ask. How does a regular day look like for you in London?

If it’s a studio day, which I try to go to 5 days a week to keep to a routine, I have to get two buses. I usually have a coffee at home or get one at a coffee shop where I change buses, they do a pastry and coffee deal I like. After the studio I usually see friends. Until recently I was working at a pub, going straight from the studio, it was very tiring. I’m lucky to have more time now to use it recreationally, it definitely helps with creativity and burn out.

Seing that Both of your brothers George and Alfie, are renowned  artists as well, I was wondering. How was it growing up in a family of artists and creatives? And how have they influenced you?

Growing up all doing the same career is fulfilling as it gives us a mutual ground to bond and share interests. It’s inspirational watching them make really beautiful pieces and push themselves and the practice, it encourages me to not be afraid and do the same.

I know that you got picked up fairly early by Guts Gallery, while you were studying at Camberwell College of Art. But if we were to go back even further. When did you start to paint, and when did you start taking being an artist seriously?

I started to take art seriously when I was at college although I had always drawn and created. I think while I was at Camberwell I realised how passionate I was about painting. I really fixated on it in second year and that fixation has turned into an obsession that just exponentially grows. 

Speaking of Guts Gallery… Prepping for this interview I saw a video interview with you, where you talked about how you got introduced to Guts. I thought it was super dope, and was wondering if you could share it here as well?

If it is what I’m thinking, it’s a very funny beginning to our collaborations. Ell, the director, and I matched on a dating up. We spoke but never met up. Then one day they asked if they could share one of my paintings on Guts, which at the time was a nomadic gallery/instagram platform. From thereon it was all business, and a close and meaningful friendship now. Definitely my best match to date.  

Alright. Let’s talk about your work now. The female sexual gaze, as well as anxiety and pleasure. What is it about those topics that makes you want to document them?

I get asked this question a lot and although I have lots of answers, some informed by art theory and history, I will admit that the basis of it is a documentation of my own experience and expressing this in a way that feels natural to me. A freakish and abstracted diary entry. It’s not to do with real moments, but more the interactions I have with thoughts and feelings. Although some can seem violent, the inspiration isn’t necessarily from a bad place. It’s a subject matter that I find consistently interesting as it changes with my own personal life changes and experiences. I really enjoy how the emotional and physical body can be so connected and inform each other, create emotions and physical reactions when viewed, just from an image or an insinuation of a moment. Having someone view the artworks and form a reaction to the piece is a very beautiful experience and removes me from the self indulgence of the process, its vulnerable to do so, but the social aspect of refuting the work from the personal and giving it up to the viewer so that they can hopefully find their own meaning is much more rewarding.

The various sexual and kind of provocative scenes. What’s the inspiration behind them? And what are you hoping to convey?

I think that the body can be a great tool in painting. Figurative painting is a never ending well of ways to elicit emotions and explore the medium. There’s so many ways to paint a body, so many marks and movements in the process, it’s exciting. The scenes aren’t necceserily provocative as this would mean im seeking a deliberate reaction. I’m not, and if the works are seen as sexually provocative the intimacy and heart within the images has been misread. It’s not pornography, I’m trying to express my existence. I have an interest in intruding and breaking the body to get the inside out. My figures are like corporal dolls that I bend, meld, splice and slice, what I can only describe as a desperation to articulate how it feels to exist. I’m not sure what I’m trying to say with many of my paintings but it’s honest and it feels raw and vulnerable.

With that in mind. Who are the naked men and women in those scenes?

They’re everyone, they’re all me and they’re no one at all, they’re dolls, they’re metaphors, they’re paint.

Why are themes like shame and guilt important for you to document? And can you tell me about the presence of bodily fluids and wetness in general, in your works. What are you hoping to convey?

I think shame and guilt are damaging. Regret is good and helpful, but pure shame and guilt only lead to deep feelings of displacement. I think documenting them in the ways I do signposts this and in a way offers forgiveness. The bodily fluids refer back to my description of having the inside out, I use them to explore ideas of expulsion and leakings of the internal. Bodily fluids are carnal and signify life.

Can you walk me through your creative process. From beginning, to end result?

I start with a collage of an idea. I stretch my canvas, I start with a ground of bleach and ink. I paint onto this, revisit areas, work on it till it looks right. I do the background then the finishing details last. My process has become much more fluid and expressive than it used to be, allowing the paint and brush to decide some marks, relinquishing some control to the medium. 

How do you approach color?

Colour is hard to get right. I like luminosity in the bodies so always go for colours that can create this. The other colours are decided in order to match the mood of the painting, I like dark backgrounds but black can sometimes be too harsh, darker tones of colours, like browns, blues and greys are softer and make the image more inviting which balances the sometimes morbid imagery.

So besides painting you also make sculptures and poetry. Let’s start with sculpting. In one of your other interviews you mention that latex is your favorite material to work with. My questions are. Why are sculptures one of your preferred mediums for expressing yourself. And what makes latex your preferred material?

Painting is my preferred medium to express myself, latex is my preferred medium when making sculptures. for expression its probably Painting, poetry then sculpture. I like using latex as it is really tactile and feels organic. I also enjoy the process of it starting as a liquid and having to manipulate that into the finished piece, its therapeutic. 

How did you get introduced to poetry? And what does that medium do for you, that painting and sculpting cannot?

I’ve always loved words. I used to read all the time when I was younger and I read now. I’ve always liked song lyrics, I used to love reading the lyric booklets at the front of CDs. I love wordsearches. I’m a bit of a word nerd. I think for me, poetry allows my interest in words to become images in themselves. The way that they work together and are situated in a line or stanza, for me, feels similar to composition of a painting. You can decide to make it abstract or to make it visceral. Words can have double meanings and hidden meanings, much like an image. Poetry does the same for me as a painting, but in a different medium. 

What motivates you?

I love to create.

How would you describe a perfect day?

By a river, with a crossword

Alright Elsa. I always ask these two questions at the end of an interview. The first is. What’s your favorite movie(s) and why?

Don’t look now (1979) is great, I love the use of grief and the colour red as the main plot drivers. 

The second is. What song(s) are you currently listening to the most right now?

Oh How We Fell by Matt Elliott

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