As some of you may know, I’m an artist/designer (among other things, depending on when you ask me). I am, for probably obvious reasons, fascinated by art that deals with bodies - especially aberrant bodies, the ways in which our bodies shape (and our shaped by) our identities, and the ways in which bodies interact with social and cultural norms.
I think that art (and I’m using this term really broadly to include not only visual art, but conceptual craft and design, writing, and any other form of creative expression) can be a really powerful method for sharing physical and social experiences that are often overlooked, as well as for challenging perceptions of what bodies can and should act like.
To that end, I’m going to try to share one artist per week who is doing interesting work relating to the body, illness and/or disability. (And of course, if you have any artists you want to suggest, please feel free to share in the comments!)
Also, please note that many of the artists I’ll be sharing here create work that might be considered graphic. I don’t want to do trigger warnings for these, because I think that may carry the implication that the bodies and images they’re dealing in are inherently disturbing, which is a notion most of these artists are actively trying to dismantle. That said, if you’re uncomfortable with things like skin lesions/extreme body modification, please proceed with caution.
Ariana Page Russell
Russell is an American artist whose work “explore[s] the skin as a document of human experience.” She has dermatographia, a condition that results in easy blushing, and causes her skin to form welts when it is lightly scratched. By lightly tracing designs onto her skin, she is able to create raised, temporary ‘skin tattoos’ that she then documents photographically. She has also begun using her documentation to create collages that she then reapplies to her skin, or to surfaces around her environment.
Bit by Bit (2006)
Patterns’ Faction (2006)
In her own words,
A body is an index of passing time. Skin protects us as it shows shifting bones, bruising, muscles loosening and tightening, and freckles and wrinkles forming. I think of this as a transient fashion of skin, including the revealing way a blush decorates one’s cheek, freckles form constellations on an arm, or hair creates sheen on skin’s matte surface.
My skin is very sensitive and I blush easily. I have dermatographia, a condition in which one’s immune system releases excessive amounts of histamine, causing capillaries to dilate and welts to appear (lasting about thirty minutes) when the hypersensitive skin’s surface is lightly scratched. This allows me to painlessly draw on my skin with just enough time to photograph the results. Even though the drawings enable me to direct this ephemeral response, the reaction is involuntary, much like the uncontrollable nature of a blush. I’m externalizing internal functions, adding to the fashion of skin with patterned dermatographic welts.
The sensitivity of my skin is transparency too—what shows up on the surface reflects what’s going on inside. All of my work in the last 12 years has been about this capacity of skin to reveal internal happenings, and how permeable that makes us.
Rather than being frustrated by my skin’s transparency, I claim it by making art in the crimson hues that reveal my vulnerability.
I am enamoured of Russell’s work because it’s such a simple concept, yet makes for a complex and multi-faceted inquiry into norms and practices of beauty, the relationships between text/image and the body, and the interactions between the body and the environment and the ways in which they reciprocally alter one another.
Russell also has a fantastic, collaborative blog, SkinTome that chronicles her own work, as well as the experiences of other skin artists, and people with dermatographia. There’s also a great article in the Atlantic exploring the community aspect of SkinTome.
[All images taken from Russell’s website, arianapagerussell.com]