As a kid, Shona McAndrew watched mystified as her brother played a game that was something along the lines of crotch-grabbing chicken. “Though he claims not to remember this,” she tells Creators, “He and his friends would all simultaneously reach for their crotches in increasingly public settings. It was their personal joke, something to make them laugh and challenge each other in socially uncomfortable situations.” In short, it was the sort of game that anyone who’s ever had a brother or been a brother is familiar with, a bit of mischievous but essentially innocent vulgarity. McAndrew, meanwhile, found it perplexing . “I had never imagined that one was allowed to touch themselves in public,” she says. “My sexuality and my body was something I knew to keep secret.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that McAndrew’s work as an artist has been marked by a thoroughly open and un-secretive approach to women’s bodies and sexualites. The Philadelphia-based 26-year-old, one of 28 female artists whose work appears in Creators‘ co-curated exhibit with the Museum of Sex, NSFW: Female Gaze , creates sculptures, paintings, photos, and digital collages that frequently depict women in quiet moments of self-exploration. In keeping with the exhibit’s title, the male gaze is entirely absent from her work. Her art is utterly un-voyeristic, almost as if it’s framed by no gaze at all.
“I hope my girls’ physical presence is able to dismantle some of the traditional voyeuristic distance,” says McAndrew. Her girls are confident in the natural way that most of us revert to in the absence of an audience, totally at ease and not at all performative. Their nudity provokes in us none of the anxieties of the voyeur who watches something that was meant to be hidden: this nudity wasn’t meant to be hidden. McAndrew’s sculpture Norah is featured in the NSFW exhibit, and depicts a plus-sized woman sprawled in an armchair and languidly stroking her pubic hair—grabbing her crotch in just the way that McAndrew found so fascinating when she was growing up. Norah’s eyes are skyward; she can’t see us looking at her, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in whether or not we do.
The women in her work are just as indifferent to time as they are to the audience. In sculpting women who share her body type, McAndrew “had to confront the lack of representation plus-sized women have today.” Fat women are all-too-often depicted as “before” pictures, in contrast with smiling “after” versions of their thinner selves standing in one leg of her fat pants. In this way, they are often portrayed as one side of an incomplete equation. “The plus-sized body seems trapped in a perpetual ‘before,’ removing any validity she might possess in the present,” says McAndrew. Accordingly, McAndrew’s works are willfully in the present, with no hint of an imagined future and nothing that urges us to try to conjure their past. Her girls often strike poses that find their legs spread, usually in a non-sexual, comfortable way that goes against everything we’ve been taught of ladies sitting with knees together, one ankle tucked behind the other. McAndrew’s women aren’t afraid to take up space.
McAndrew’s works often have a simple title system—they’re named for the woman they depict, women McAndrew not only sculpted but imagined lives and personalities for. “My women all feel like separate individuals to me, with their respective personalities, faces and stories… At some point, it’s almost like my sculptures take charge, saying, “Come on, Shona, you know my leg is a little rounder over there,” or “A little less shoulder, please.”
Though she’s intimately aware of the lives of her girls, McAndrew is careful not to give too much away: she wants us to know no more about the women in her sculptures than we’d know about a woman we happened to pass in the street. “A few people have come up to me and asked if Norah is queer, which I am quite happy to hear,” says McAndrew. She didn’t initially imagine Norah as a queer woman, but in the process of sculpting her began to realize that Norah might be. “But again, it doesn’t matter,” she says. “How could I possibly know how Norah experiences her sexuality?”
To learn more about Shona McAndrew’s work, click here.
For more on NSFW: Female Gaze, click here.