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From the Venus of Willendorf in 25,000 BC to the Venus de Milo in 130 BC, and from supermodel ‘Twiggy’ in the 1960s to reality TV star Kim Kardashian in 2021, ideas about female beauty are constantly changing.
Yet the impact on body image remains the same. Contemporary visual artist and former Canberran Jess Cochrane aims to inspire and influence conversations on body positivity through her work.
“When I was younger and studying, my work started with the female body and the impossible standards that women’s bodies are held to. I’m still exploring the topic – that’s what most artists do – I’m really fascinated by it,” says Jess.
Jess’s work reflects on insecurity and perfectionism in the modern age. Her focus is on authentic feminine beauty, illustrated by applying paint over photographic images.
“I first went to London in 2018 to exhibit work in a group show for International Women’s Day. It was my international break,” says Jess.
After a year of going backwards and forwards between the UK and Australia, Jess decided to make a permanent move overseas for an international career. She was also seeing someone in the UK.
“It was definitely terrifying, but I didn’t put any pressure on it—I thought, I’ll just do it,” she says.
Success in work and love followed. Jess’s work began to be exhibited at solo and group shows in the UK and, and Jess and her boyfriend are now finalising renovations to their London house.
“Moving to London allowed me to explore a different side of the conversation on body politics in my work. I like connecting the history of art, design and advertising to play on how pop culture and its roots involve both displaying and disguising parts of ourselves,” says Jess.
The inspiration for Jess’s work dates back to her teenage years, when she would spend hours looking through magazines at her local newsagency. She was fascinated by the photographs of beautiful women in the latest fashions, seemingly unattainable to a young girl growing up in Canberra.
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“I loved looking at magazines with all my heart, first Cosmo and Dolly, and then I started getting into Vogue at college,” says Jess.
“My Dad, who is a brilliant art teacher and artist in his own right, noticed I kept copying and sketching all the images out of the magazines. He said since I obviously like to draw people, maybe I should do a life drawing class,” she says.
“Dad took me to my first life drawing class at 14, and I loved it. It was a way of looking at a body not in a way that’s uptight or perfected. It was a real body with curves and parts. When you’re doing life drawing it’s so far from being sexualised, you’re looking at form and shadows and light and gestures,” says Jess.
The contradiction of the airbrushed and glossy women portrayed in magazines and those Jess sketched in her life drawing classes proved revelatory. It sparked the beginning of a flourishing artistic career that kicked off with a graduate exhibition in 2014.
“I had a massive collection of magazines from my teens and I started to paint over the top of the photos in the way I would paint a life drawing. It was a clash of painting over something that was very much made to a set of beauty standards – so that’s basically where it started.
“My work is something that I draw upon on a daily basis. I used to struggle with anxiety, and I realised these magazines contributed to the reason I hated myself so much, but that I’d never noticed because I held them on such a pedestal my whole life,” says Jess.
Jess continued refining her vibrant and bold works, moving from Canberra to Sydney and then London in the process.
“I thought, why don’t I take a photo of someone I know in the same editorial style where it looks touched up and perfect, and paint over that? Women are so much more comfortable being photographed by a woman and I think that lack of self-consciousness comes through in the work as well,” says Jess.
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Jess starts her process by taking large-scale photographs of her subjects in various poses, which she edits before they are printed on the same industrial printers used for magazines and newspapers. The photos are reproduced on satiny, glossy paper to reflect the look and feel of magazines, which is integral to the work.
She then paints over the photos, using bold colours and strong, sweeping lines that deface yet enhance the images. Her works are striking and provocative, challenging the viewer to consider the idea of a different kind of beauty that doesn’t conform to a particular feminine ideal.
“One of the favourite parts of my job is that all of the people in my portraits are people that I know. Through the artistic process, I get to know them a little better and have this conversation that’s in my work.
“Every single person on this planet is going to have a hang-up about something but it’s also nice that these are my friends, they’re all stunning but they’re all individual and it’s the importance of individuality that I want to my work to reflect,” says Jess.
Jess frames her work with a reflective glass that draws the viewer into the image and also reflects the viewer’s image back at them, similar to the feeling of looking into a mirror.
“Francis Bacon used to frame his works in a reflective glass. I was lucky enough to have a show in late 2019 also featuring his work. The exhibition was a conversation between the torture that Francis Bacon reflected in his art and the torture of the modern-day woman in mine,” said Jess.
Jess continues to explore the empowerment of the female body and challenge the idea of perfectionism in the modern age.
“The lockdown in London, restrictive as it is, has given me time to play around with different techniques and concentrate on developing my business. It’s sparked new ideas in terms of what I want to say in my next body of work. I feel very confident about that,” Jess says.
This work includes exhibiting her next solo show and developing online opportunities for her art. In between lockdowns, Jess managed to visit Amsterdam and drew inspiration from the symbolism of 17th-century art and the art of the modern-day, which will inform her next works.
“I’d like to think that we, as women, can be more confident of ourselves at some point. I hope that by putting my work on an online platform it will contribute to body positivity and help someone feel better about themselves,” said Jess.
Jess’s work is available on her website: jesscochrane.com.
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