Maisie Cousins, Rubbish, Dipping sauce, Grass peonie bum.

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Trolley Books (here). Hardcover, 56 pages, with 44 color photographs. Includes an essay by Simon Baker. Design by Jamie Shaw. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: London-born artist Maisie Cousins picked up photography at the age of fifteen, shooting first on her uncle’s 35mm camera. Growing up in the age of social media, she shared her photos first on Tumblr and Flickr, and now on Instagram where her following is nearing a hundred thousand. Since her graduation from Brighton University five years ago, she produced a digital commission for Late at Tate Britain, photographed Björk, and had her first solo show (in 2017) at TJ Boulting.  

Cousins’ provocative photographs focus on the relationship between the beautiful and grotesque in super-saturated color compositions. Her work explores the messy intersection of food, body, nature, power, femininity, and indulgence as she creates intimate scenes mixing elements that look both familiar and disturbing. Her macro close-ups combine things we would rarely expect to ever see together: delicate flowers, garbage, rotten fruit, insects, mold, decaying food, and human flesh. Cousins’ photographs are at once repulsive and attractive. “Nature is always beautiful and also disgusting. Even the most beautiful people leak, bleed and shit,” says Cousins.

Cousins has recently published a photobook which brings together her three most recent series – “grass, peonie, bum”, “rubbish” and “dipping sauce” – and the title directly yet playfully combines all these words together. Rubbish, Dipping sauce, Grass peonie bum. is a comfortable vertical book with a brightly reflective gold cover: the titled, embossed in white, takes up most of the cover, and the artist’s name appears on the back. Light pink endpapers are a smart design element, as they stand in softer contrast to the hyper-saturated content inside. 

All of the photographs in the book are presented full bleed, without any borders, captions, or other design elements to give us a break, creating a continuous, immersive, and often intrusive and claustrophobic visual narrative. The first spread pairs two images. The first is a bulging shiny bum floating in mysterious purple water with flowers and petals. The second has a more mushy sticky consistency: there is a prawn head, but the rest of the glossy stew is rather hard to identify. A few spreads later, a scarab beetle takes center stage, showing the details of its shiny greenish belly, yellow eyes, legs, and tiny hairs, against a colourful background of pink and red flower petals sprinkled with drops of water. Given the normal scale of the insect, the image shows just how unnaturally and uncomfortably close Cousins gets in her photographs.

The vibrant colors and lush textures in Cousins’ photographs give them a jolt of electric charge. One spread pairs two similar compositions, where pieces of rotten fruit, mushy flowers, hair, insects, and liquids appear slightly covered by yellow and blue plastic bags respectively. These shots, with their sassy colours, messy consistency, and wet texture, at first seem gross, yet they are quite striking. In one interview, Cousins talks about photography, “A pretty portrait is boring, a lovely landscape, boring. And on the opposite side, shocking ugly photography is also boring. I don’t like black-and-white answers. I like the middle because it keeps you looking and thinking. This is where everything is up for discussion, but it doesn’t really matter on the answer.” Cousins’ work brings to mind the bright flash lit photographs of the Japanese photographer Motoyuki Daifu who has documented the chaotic life of his family apartment.

The middle spread connects two related images: a hand gripping oily flesh (perhaps a bottom and a breast), covered with pieces of grass, gentle pink petals, and a live slug. Is it a marinated chicken or a human body, and what exactly is going on? Shapes and forms in Cousins’  photographs are not always easy to identify, further playing with the edges of our imagination.

Cousins’ work comes from “a desire to see femininity and sexuality in a positive and open way”; the images often deal with sexual expression, our appropriation of the human body, and its presentation – a finger touching the heart of a moist open flower, with pieces of kiwi flesh around it; a close up of an anthurium flower with its elongated stamen in the center, highlighting its phallic appearance; a close up of a sweaty face behind colorful flower, with the focus placed on open lips; and countless images of seductively swirled flowers and fruit that recall the setups of Nobuyoshi Araki, albeit with a more overtly feminine eye. Cousins says “I’m interested in being human and all the delicious and gross things that come along with it”.

Cousins’ photographs are often uncomfortably and confrontationally grotesque, yet there is undeniable beauty and erotism in her piles and puddles of moist muck. Her heaps and muddles have a distinct visual language that is engrossing and surprisingly aesthetically pleasing. Rubbish, Dipping sauce, Grass peonie bum. is a memorable photobook that roughly grabs our attention, but once we’ve entered Cousins’ world, it’s hard not to be seduced.

Collector’s POV: Maisie Cousins is represented by TJ Boulting in London (here). Her work has not yet found its way to the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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