“Hi, my name’s Polly and I’m a human.”
A Brief Comment on the Artist and Her Vision
Polly Nor’s striking illustrations have roamed young women’s Instagram feeds for years now. Scaly red flesh pervades the varnish of unrealistic fashion bloggers, models and MUA’s who try to dominate our feeds. The late twenty-something London-based artist has put on four intimate exhibitions to date, most recently at Protein Studios in Shoreditch.
Nor’s work explores the intricate beauty of the female gaze. Picturing women alongside their demons is a pairing we rarely meet in art. For millennia, women have been glamourised by the men who depict them. Nor’s style is part of a very recent history of alternative female beauty. A beauty that women can identify with, because it is formed and shaped by their own kind.
In an interview with the BBC, Nor was asked: “How important is realistic body image to you?” She replied:
“…it’s important to me that the characters are relatable. We are constantly bombarded with images of women where the sole purpose is to be beautiful. I want to move away from the ever-present focus on girl’s appearance in our culture and focus on the thoughts and feelings of my female characters instead.”
The “thoughts and feelings” of Nor’s female subjects certainly do take absolute precedent. When we gaze at her illustrations, we are confronted with all the dimensions of woman. Nothing has been erased or hidden, instead she bears all to her viewer: the rolls and wobbles of fat that sit in all the right places, the bristles of hair that women do, in fact, grow across their entire bodies. She presents woman as whole, battle wounds and all.
This ongoing revolution in the artistic portrayal of women across social media is beginning to impact huge brands such as Victoria’s Secret, who have built their lucrative empires atop push up bras and skimpy high-rise knickers. What VS has created is a fantasy, a fantasy that refuses to reflect the female form that sits watching. In fact, VS has halved it’s viewers over the past 5 years, going from 9.7 million viewers in 2013 to 5 million viewers in 2017. As Paul Lejuez, MD at Citi, points out:
“The way it’s marketing is out of touch. Women don’t want to be viewed as stereotypical sexy supermodels buying lingerie just to impress men.”
Polly Nor, not disimilar from Victoria’s Secret, fails to present us with ‘real’ women. What she does do, is she uses fantastical creations to represent real life struggles. It’s in a similar vain to ‘magic realism’, a genre of art that uses surreal fiction to tell a realist story about the modern world.
In We In Luv And Live Very Fabulous Lifestyles, Nor reflects a woman wrapped in the arms of her demon in the mirror. The placement of the mirror can be read as ironic against the backdrop of art history. Used by male painters for centuries as a shameful symbol of female vanity, this mirror is instead being used here as a canvas on which woman can explore her other selves, the ones she hides from men.
Looking beyond the vain beauty men have falsely attributed to them, Nor’s female characters are smashing through the glass, and it’s hair-raising to see it in such bold colours and compositions as hers.
Quite rightly so, Nor’s work was featured in the NSFW Female Gaze exhibition in New York last year. Her work earnt its place alongside artists such as Monic Kim Gaza and Kristen Liu-Wong. Juxtapoz Magazine commented that “by shifting the narrative and portraying sexuality, gender and sensuality through the female perspective, you end up with an entirely new visual language, one that is free from convention, heteronormativity and cisgender values.”
Back in the 1970’s, famous art critic John Berger told us that “the surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object, and most particularly an object of vision – a sight.” Berger was pointing out that women were fighting a losing battle, because for as long as they could remember, they had been conditioned to view themselves as if they were being looked at by men. To agonise over their reflection as if they were being watched. Always.
But fast-forward a few decades, and female artists such as Polly Nor are proving to us all with triumphant might that beauty is simply not measured by men anymore. That women are no longer willing to view themselves as men view them. Woman will view herself as woman is. No more, no less. Just as she is. That’s the beauty you will experience in going to a Polly Nor exhibition, or scrolling down her Instagram feed.