With a new exhibition on the way, the artist reflects on the epidemic of female anxiety in the internet age
Artist Polly Nor’s illustrations shine a light on the dark side of the female experience and the difficulties of navigating modern life. True to form, her third solo show, Airing My Dirty Laundry In Public, holds nothing back when dealing with aspects of womanhood, such as the hazards of social media, negative body image, toxic relationships, self-esteem, friendship, and sexuality.
“I chose to call it Airing My Dirty Laundry in Public because these are issues that I wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable talking about in public,” says the London-born artist. This exposing of private angst versus the public performance of female identity has long-formed the backbone of her work.
The female figures who populate Nor’s work are often shown with their devil counterparts or seen peeling off surreal human skin-suits. But while the meaning of these images might feel obvious, the artist is keen to preserve a sense of ambiguity about what these recurring motifs represent. She explains, “I always try to say the minimum I can about my work, because I like people seeing different things and taking different meanings from it.” Although reluctant to say too much, she does reveal that Airing My Dirty Laundry In Public (which opens at east London’s Protein Studios on 12th October) will feature a new 39-part series of her hand-drawn and digitally-coloured images – a continuation of a series of nine that she had posted on her Instagram earlier in the year. “I think it was one of my most popular series,” she reflects. “I had a lot of people relating to that one, and so I've continued the story.” Nor also describes the new installation room she’s been working on for the show. “It’ll be kind of like the image ‘Deep Cleanse’ that's on my poster, featuring the human skins made out of latex that I had at my last show. It's trying to bring that image to life.”
“I chose to call it Airing My Dirty Laundry in Public because these are issues that I wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable talking about in public” – Polly Nor
Undoubtedly Nor’s work has found a huge audience on Instagram, reverberating with those who have grown weary of the endless procession of curated perfection. But the images she creates are actually an antidote to many of the toxic tropes of the platform. “That's the interesting thing about using it,” she says. “You’re releasing your artwork into a field of all this stuff that can feel quite negative to be viewing.”
“(Women are) conditioned from a really young age to value our looks more than anything else; to feel like we'll be happier and more successful, and life will be better if we're more attractive in the eyes of other people,” she says. “Boys aren't raised in that way, they're always told – which isn't necessarily healthy either – that they're brave, they can achieve everything. There's a lot of pressure put on them in other ways. But, for us, the biggest compliment you can be given is that you're pretty. So, body issues definitely end up becoming a bigger issue for women.”
Her one million-strong Instagram following (many who have Polly Nor-inspired tattoos) is proof of the much-needed pushback against these unhealthy mindsets that her work represents, and a testament to the relatability of its everyday realism and dark comedy. The signature Polly Nor devil is like an emblem of resistance against damaging cultural conditioning, or, at the very least, an acknowledgement of it.
Despite her success, she speaks about a downside to her epic trajectory via Instagram in which she feels a pressure to continue to produce work at an equally rapid rate. “Because everything came about really quickly through Instagram I feel like, instead of letting myself take some time off this year, I was pressuring myself that I had to be making new artwork so I could post it online.” She admits that she has felt the strains of exhibiting on a platform that’s so over-saturated and “throwaway”. Keeping followers interested in what you’re doing amid the noise and clamour of the web created a “pressure to create ‘content’ more than artwork”. Instead, she’s been focusing on trying to enjoy the process again. “I've been working on pieces that I don’t feel the need to share straight away, so I have more time to develop and grow as an artist.”
In terms of what’s next, Nor reveals that she’s looking in new directions. “I've been interested in doing longer projects, more narrative-based work – so I guess that might end up being books or an animated series. I've been writing stories, stuff that I'm not going to do anything with for a while, and it's made me start to enjoy my job a bit more again. It is amazing because before all of this I just had no idea what I was going to do. I never imagined it was going it take off in the way that it has, so I'm very lucky.”
Airing My Dirty Laundry in Public is showing at Protein Studios 12-17 October (31 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EY), 11am-7pm daily