Conversations on the Art of Resistance (3): Body as Canvas

by | June 27, 2024

Victoria Gugenheim was drawing before she could talk and was beginning with makeup by age 6, then focusing on face and bodypainting by age 9. She enjoys the process of de-othering as means of humanizing people. Her artistic forms vary widely from bodypainting, clothing design, digital art, and drawing, to installations, makeup, painting, and photography. Her clients have included Alice Cooper’s Halloween Night of Fear, Charlotte Church, Sony, London Fashion Week, Models of Diversity, Nokia, Marvel, and The World Bodypainting Festival. Here we continue on the body as canvas.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: My intuition flared off, recently. A bit before the recent sessions together. I realized. The individual who rudely, though sincerely, called Andrew Copson wanton and debauched – I believe demonic too – on live television in the UK. It stuck, as an intuitive reasoning experiment. The conclusion, after bugging me for a week: The dude expressed common, sincere sentiments, which, in other countries, become State oppression and public retaliation for open existence, not for presence (as many are searched out and hunted), e.g., ‘Ayaz Nizami’, Mubarak Bala, Saba Ismail and Gulalai Ismail, Mohamed Hisham, Rishvin Ishmath, and others. When you came out as a humanist and a lesbian, was this liberating? Was this reaction-inducing in others in an accepting sense, rejecting sense?

Victoria Gugenheim: I found accepting, moreso discovering, my lesbianism personally revelatory. However, it did result in discovering quite a large undercurrent of homophobia, with one woman cancelling as she didn’t feel comfortable being painted by a lesbian (peculiarly though, she was fine when she thought I was bi!). A number of male fans left, having felt “betrayed’, which begged the questions to me, “why on earth were they following my work in the first place?” “Were they really following me on the basis they thought they could one day have sex with me, or bought into that fantasy?” I found that in some ways, quite cynically apt as there is a horrid connect between person as object and possession in contemporary society, and also women are still denigrated in the arts and seen as lesser. I’ve never personally played to that fantasy at all, I’m far too in my own world looking at theories, evoking looks, exploring concepts, and have been topless twice for political protests, always with other women of all ages and body types. That projection being put upon me though was quite a startling revelation. It also shows in a small but immediate way, how we still need to tackle misogynist attitudes and homophobia, as both are deeply anathema to human wellbeing. Statistically, acceptance for gay people has been declining, and there has been a rise in homophobic attacks, even in London. Ultimately it was a host of unpleasant reactions when I came out, but at the same time, there was also support from fellow lesbians, which was so beautiful. As for the veracity of the comments, thankfully they were not on par with the previous bomb threats I’ve received. Small mercies eh? 

There is still this odd stereotype of us being predatory too, likely a sour grapes construct from men in the 70’s with the rise of pulp about us and dodgy cult film. Doing things to empower the human spirit and convey concepts that need conveying has always been in my work, and Humanism was an emergent term for that, alongside being atheist and feminist. But I am keen to ensure that these definitions do not become moralistic confines, and am very much for exploring all sorts of wild, beautiful and wonderful ideas and concepts. Benevolent and curious freedom of expression shouldn’t be compromised. 

Jacobsen: How have you used these realizations of yourself in your art?

Gugenheim: My first humanist Bodypainting emerged at The World Humanist Congress, which went down a storm, but in terms of being a lesbian, it’s actually not been quite so literal, although I’m desperate to explore lesbian history as it’s so often erased, and to highlight lesbian plights around the world in Iran, Afghanistan, China, Cambodia, all the places where you can be punished with death, correctively raped and on occasion, forced to transition. 

What +has+ happened is a deepening affinity for women and my own body. I’ve suddenly become very connected on a profound level to women, their suffering, their victories, their plights and their pain, moreso than I was ever before, even though I was outraged at their suffering worldwide. I now feel it my moral duty to share their stories and feel it almost on what feels like a molecular level. The revelation was so deep that it shook me, and lesbianism also was a profound realisation after trauma that reconnected me to my own sense of being a woman actually -being- in the world on her own terms, away from yet another confine; heteronormativity.

My clients have also, certainly changed. I have far more lesbians now!

Jacobsen: How do you approach the human body as a canvas?

Gugenheim: I have a mixture of approaches. Oftentimes I work with the body as allegory, creating stories and explaining complicated concepts, or creating something emotive or fantastical on skin. I was featured in an academic paper in South Korea for my work on this, actually! One way I love to work is a mini movement I have called Statementism- the idea that you can work with the body as the oldest, most immediate and responsive canvas we have in order to convey complicated and high end scientific and technological concepts, very much the past meets the future. I pay attention to the way a person holds theirself before, during and after the process, look for any ways they could be uncomfortable, check in with them, and see how their body responds and changes with the paint. For male commercial painters there is a LOT of objectification and I refuse to work that way. How I work is far more of a dialogue than most people would think. I care deeply when I’m painting someone, about how they are feeling, about the outcome, about what we want to mutually convey, which is anathema to seeing them as a flat, inanimate canvas. They live, breathe, move, get cold or hot, and the process is quite the choreography in itself. As for medium, I tend to only use Brush and Sponge as these are nimble, quick, punk rock and enable you to flit from place to place far more easily. 

Jacobsen: The canvas, the body, looks so difficult. Hard, soft, flexible, hairy in different places, sweaty and oily, it’s just a mess, evolved mess. What palette of materials are helpful in making the body more – ahem – palatable?

Gugenheim: Ha! Yes, we are indeed an evolved mess of 35 trillion cells, all somehow through nonsentient agreement trying to get through life in the least worst way possible until the senescence kicks in. Oddly, it’s a beautiful experience working with different body types. There are a broad range of textures, and more mainstream artists consider smooth skin devoid of texture to be the best canvas to operate on. They’re looking for android like perfection, and that takes away quite a sizeable chunk of variety. Instead I prefer to work with all sorts of skin textures and contours. I sort of think in wireframe and map the idea onto the body as I go. So that is the foundation (as all decent looks start with a good foundation, darling), and atop that is a multitude of glittery goodness. Usually Cameleon Paint, which is water based and EU and FDA approved. Following that are beautiful skin friendly glitters, hand made prosthetics and recently, an awful lot of 24k gold leaf and adornments. Sometimes I love just the paint and the technical precision of doing as much as I can with that. Other times I want to use as much gold as the armour of King Gustav of Sweden X, minus the death and blood. Not a big fan of those as a Humanist Bodypainter, really. Could do without.

For any aspiring artsy curiosos: If you decide to embark on the aesthetic suicide mission that is the world of body art, for whatever we have as opposed to a God’s sake, avoid any base level shenanigans from Amazon, PLEASE. 

Jacobsen: How do the different contours of different body types affect artistic choices?

Gugenheim: The body has its own topology, but you need to work with it in a way for a sophisticated piece that isn’t quite so obvious. One of my breakthroughs which I’ve taught all over the world is Blatchko’s lines. They matched so well with how to create sophisticated pieces of art, that some of my students were able to bypass conventional anatomy training entirely, getting an acute understanding of positioning just from the lines. 

Larger spaces like backs are beautifully primed for epic scenes, like deserts, huge mountainscapes, or biomech with lots of detail. For protests they are great for slogans. Wrists look beautiful when highlighted, as do collarbones, lending an ethereal quality that when taken in as an holistic piece of work, gives it an oomph. Unlike other artists, I also like using lots of black for drama, and find anything framed along the side of the body looks so much more “kapow” when adorned with black! 

Jacobsen: How do you prevent thematic and colour clashes in protest art, body art presentations without a protest focus, and stuff with entertainment focus like big-time movies, e.g. Guardians of the Galaxy or something where bodyart is very clearly in the movies?

Gugenheim: Interesting question. If you mean in terms of the emotive colour, then they are so thematically opposed that they have their own language and methods of creation now, although I am DYING to use more fine art in studio protest pieces, so if there are any Ex Muslims, Women Life Freedom activists or women who want to fight for their freedoms especially, do step on up!

Protest art is usually blocks of colour created quickly in a public setting for immediate effect. They are pieces meant to grab you on a visceral level, as opposed to being sophisticated. Logos, slogans, all of these are usually 1 to 3 colours, so there is a benevolent clash if you will, the clash of a woman’s body unclothed in public, with… the general public. A nonviolent riot of colour. 

Movie makeup is created under very different conditions, with a number of creatives planning looks and then teams of people executing them. Vision boards with a LOT of plagiarism are abundant (which I disapprove of and don’t personally use). It has to pass by committee for approval and then what the director says, goes. There are often SFX techniques like speckling, something called “cheating in” a prosthetic where you create the illusion someone has one when they don’t, and most SFX bodypainters will use airbrush. The cohesiveness is then decided by the director and the creative management looking at trial shots of the work. They decide on tweaks, what to take out, put in, emphasise, and this laborious process will go on until a consensus is reached. It is more of a group effort.

As for fine art pieces in a studio, they are a far more relaxed affair, the paint being built up in layers and an exploration of concept and feeling between the person being painted and the artist, which compliments the work…and there is always the colour wheel. 

Jacobsen: What are the areas of these artistic endeavours that have a unity of materials and purpose? Where, somehow, protest and entertainment are in the same direction. 

Gugenheim: Impact. You want everything you do to have impact. Power. Life. I want art that makes you look or takes your breath away. 

Jacobsen: Are there ways in which the human surface and form makes a better protest canvas than posters, videos, flags, and such?

Gugenheim: Absolutely! All of these pieces however work together in a sort of holistic, evolving protest web, and are useful for myriad reasons. Video can be used to carry the medium, make it more transmissable as a meme, so it’s highly useful. Seeing flags and placards en masse can add a feeling of solidarity, But we are evolutionarily primed to respond to a human body, and a supernormal stimuli like bodypaint, commands us to look. This supernormal stimuli principle is found, and can even be primed, in rats and gulls, basically any complex enough animal, even butterflies. Where you need to make a novel, commanding statement, where you want to make an emboldened and powerful point, where you want immediate media attention, use bodyart! 

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time again, Victoria. We’ll be back. 

Gugenheim: My pleasure, as always. 

Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

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