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Polly Nor It's called Art Mum, Look it Up
‘A Real Woman’Courtesy of Polly Nor

Polly Nor’s art celebrates us women and our weirdness

Back with a new exhibition, the London artist reflects on her meteoric rise and what her work means to her

Polly Nor has come a long way since her first solo show, Sorry Grandma: An Exhibition of Obscene Illustrations by Polly Nor, in 2015. Her trademark devils-in-human-skins have gone viral – thanks to her now 721k-strong Instagram following – even appearing as memes, made especially for Gucci. Finally, Nor is with a new show at east London’s Protein Studios, opening next week.

It’s Called Art Mum, Look it Up is, in part, a response to this surreal rise in Nor’s profile, rather than her own familial ties. “My mum’s actually quite arty and weird herself,” she laughs when I ask if the title of her new show is something she’s had to say to her own. Instead, she was thinking of the messages she now gets from fans (usually teenage girls) who’ve tried to persuade their parents to buy Nor’s prints or let them get a tattoo of her designs. “Yeah, that’s so surreal,” she laughs – especially since she remembers how, at the time of her first show when everything really started to take off for her, she was still temp-ing to afford to be able to draw on the side.

“For me, (the devil suits are) about growing up: feeling the pressure to look a certain way, or to put this face on for the rest of the world, but lots of people read into it in different ways” – Polly Nor

In 2017, Nor is a full-time artist and this show – scheduled just before she plans to switch off for a while and “have more time to draw” – is a timely reflection on just how far she’s come. “I really understand how much work goes into a show now,” she says about the process behind putting her work together again: “this is obviously going to be much bigger, and there’s an installation room as well with some never-before-seen “weird sculpture stuff”.

“I made them really big,” Nor confesses about a devil arm sculpture, inspired by her recurring line-drawings of those curling, only slightly insidious arms. “I didn’t plan them at all, I just started doing them and they slowly got so big that they don’t fit in my studio… I have no idea how I’m going to get them (to the show) yet – I just hope they don’t break on the way.” And there’s more. Wanting a similarly immersive experience of her work at Protein, Nor will also be recreating a version of the literal green room (a bedroom bursting with plants) she had at Secret Garden Party – complete with IRL bodysuit human skins like those worn by her illustrated devil women, hanging in the wardrobe.

“They’re probably the weirdest thing that I have there,” she says, admitting she’s not sure how they’ll go down considering the illustrated versions alone had some people online already call her out for being a “woman hater” and even, amusingly, a member of the Illuminati. (Anything to be in the same gang as Jay and Bey, of course.) Such interpretations, like the broad labelling of her work as “feminist” are simplifications that misread the pieces entirely. “I’m a feminist,” Nor clarifies, “but when I draw, I don’t really sit there with a concept or an idea like that – I just draw how I’m feeling.” That’s why being put in the “feminist artist” category by others – especially for commercial gain masquerading as “woke-ness” – sits uneasily with Nor, who refused a proposal from PornHub to work together on an adult colouring book. “It really puts you in a box – that every image you’re doing has that specific point like that’s what it’s about.” 

Really though, she feels, “most artists just want the freedom to create,” – a kind of agency that Nor notes there’s definitely more of with social media platforms like Instagram. Inverting the traditional process of a new artist needing to find a gallery to exhibit their work in order to get any initial recognition, social media and the internet has allowed artists with more unique, unconventional styles like Nor’s to make their own way, without too much compromise. “You can upload your gallery onto your own space, and curate it how you want to,” she says of its role in her own rise, and artists can fund themselves more with their own merchandise than having to rely too much on commissions that might not fit their aesthetic or perspective – as long as people aren’t cheeky and steal your designs like they often did to her in the beginning. 

But there’s one great plus that outweighs all of this for Nor. Now that exhibitions usually come after an artist has established themselves online, shows like this – where pretty much anything goes – are able to exist without the usual resistance from more uptight gallery spaces. From devil arms to human suits, It’s Called Art Mum, Look it Up is a clear demonstration of this. “For me, (the suits are) about growing up: feeling the pressure to look a certain way, or to put this face on for the rest of the world,” she says, “but lots of people read into it in different ways.” As recurring visual metaphors in her work, they also tell a broader story of her own growth and self-acceptance as an artist and person – each one, like each of her works, a representation of how she felt when she was making them, now available for you to immerse yourself in too. “Lots of people read into it in different ways,” she says of these interpretations: “I guess that’s the great thing about art.”

It’s Called Art Mum, Look it Up is on at Protein Studios, London from 18-22 August 11-7pm daily