phebe schmidt’s photographic meditation on beauty, sex and ageing is exactly as weird as you want it to be
In Sweethearts, the artist savours the artificial colours and flavours of womanhood.
Photography Phebe Schmidt
When photographer Phebe Schmidt looks at the world she doesn't see animals, vegetables and minerals. She sees all the strange artificial constructs that inform how we feel about ourselves and each other. But rather than recoil she basks in the artificial glory of it all. In her new show Sweethearts she's looking at the private and public lives of women and how we work so hard to manipulate other people's gaze. Don't worry it's not a somber dissection of consumerism or vanity, quite the opposite. It's a loving look at the bombastic processes of being female — weight loss saunas and all.
This project examines different female archetypes — how do you choose what dimension of gender you want to explore?
It actually all came from this big set of inspirational images I have been building from 70s and 80s porn. I have all these weird crops from those awkward scenes when, like a student comes into the teacher's office and the conversations are awkward, the poses are awkward, the faces are awkward.
Porn set ups are such a weird lens into how people imagine women's lives.
Yeah, originally I was thinking of doing something with big sets like that, but then I simplified it and narrowed it down to created characters — I ended up exploring these three.
Could you explain who they are?
With all of them I wanted to explore this public versus private divide; a lot of the characters are really done-up with lots of make-up or an evening dress but I'll bring in a private element. In Sue, the older woman, I was exploring this idea of youth and ageing and this desire to want to look impossibly young. She's shown in a boudoir chair, wearing a nightgown, big jewellery and a big wig but she has her feet in a foot-spa.
I call Ruth a "wife without kisses" but that sounds pretty weird now that I say it. Her character reflects a disobedient gender construction; she's wearing these nylon and baby-doll outfits but then again has her make-up done so it is sort of what you would wear to bed but at the same time she looks like she is ready to go out.
The third character Colette I call "hot and bothered." She's the unattainable ideal and sense of isolation when it comes to obsessive self-care. Colette goes to the solarium so in one of the shots she has those tanning goggles on with a formal dress and big hair. In another photo she has a tissue box and looks like she is going to cry, but also looks really amazing and plastic.
These representations are very purposely artificial, so how do you weave real feelings into them?
I think it would be impossible to not take something from these characters, they've been exaggerated to such a degree that their artificiality brings their message across. I guess I personally take things from my own experience and that's how I related to them. For example, in one photo one of them is in a portable sauna wearing a grey wig. I have this memory of my grandmother having a portable sauna as a weight-loss technique, she also wore a grey wig.
Lets talk about your interest in ageing and maintaining ones looks. There's a lot of gender discussion in art at the moment, but it's largely focused around youth. It's interesting to see that fear of loosing your looks explored.
Sue had to be there to tie it all together; ageing doesn't mean you don't stop striving for unattainable beauty. We just tend to focus on younger characters.
As you mentioned, your grandmother never stopped questing after that.
I remember my mum telling me about how grandma had one of those machines that you put around your waist that wiggle and are meant to help you loose weight. I love those weird processes that people do to attain this weird image of what we as a society have decided is attractive.
Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Phebe Schmidt