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Naila Hazell, Holding Vitality, 2022, Oil and Acry
Naila Hazell, Holding Vitality, 2022, Oil and Acrylic on Wooden Panel, 95 x 125cm.© Courtesy of the Artist and STUDIO WEST

The psychology of the flesh: these paintings explore our bodily memories

Skin Deep is the group art show exploring the fundamental relationship between our physical selves and our emotional lives

To step into Skin Deep, the upcoming group show at London’s Studio West, is to be confronted with the corporeal and its many contradictions; paintings of blushing skin, entwined limbs, intimate encounters, and scars both physical and psychological.

Featuring the work of eleven emerging UK-based figurative painters, the exhibition examines the body as a vehicle through which we interact with the world, and as a blank canvas onto which our stories are etched. Its title is laced with irony – while “skin deep” usually signifies superficiality, the artworks argue the opposite. Skin presents a paradox: it is protective yet porous and penetrable. It is the territory of touch and togetherness, and the barrier that separates self and other.

“The exhibition is intended to complicate the position of the body in contemporary art, presenting it as a multifaceted visual signifier that may bear the scars of experience, inner struggle or trauma, whilst opening up space for vulnerability and, ultimately, healing,” curator Bella Bonner-Evans tells Dazed in a conversation over email.

Inspiration for the show came from two of her favourite books: Bessel van der Kolk’s seminal text, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, which posits that healing the body is a vital pathway to mending the mind, and Melissa Febos' memoir-cum-writing-guide, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative.

“Van der Kolk’s idea that the body, rather than just the brain, is shaped by trauma complicates and enriches the territory of figurative painting – if the body holds traces of one’s experience, what does it then mean to depict the body?” suggests Bonner-Evans. “Febos, meanwhile, raises questions that are eternally relevant to the confessional artist: what is the artist’s desire, capacity or responsibility to disclose the emotional, distressing or deeply personal in their work? And to whom, in the end, does an artist’s most intimate experience belong?”

The artists’ histories and inner lives permeate the exhibition in varied ways. Lucy C Whitehead zooms in on the body’s surface in her abstract renderings of bruised and bloated skin. She explores, in her own words, “moments where we become abruptly and inescapably aware of how our physical self is not something we possess or control but rather something we inhabit.”

Elsewhere, the body prioritises pleasure. Take Nina Baxter’s oil paintings of entangled lovers, or Alice Miller’s small-scale, neon-soaked nightlife scenes. Rendered in cool hues, Serpil Mavi Üstün’s selfie portraits speak of connection sought through a screen, and the sadness or satisfaction that ensues.

In other representations of interpersonal relationships, ambivalence reigns. Moussa David Saleh magnifies moments of intense physical contact. He paints hands grabbing ankles, fingers pinching folds of skin, and feet squeezing between limbs. “A pinch is a gesture that can be playful and painful, all at once,” Saleh tells Dazed. “Holding on tightly to someone is never usually about just one thing” 

Through exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, Naila Hazell’s confessional series Repelling and Embracing also mines the conflicting emotions latent in close relationships. In The bodily exertion of friendish enemies, she depicts the moment at which tensions in a friendship reach breaking point, when the desire for “openness and honesty” collides with “a tendency towards secrecy and fear”.

As Hazell explains: “My work is really about feeling, the all-encompassing, burning, passionate feelings that fill one’s whole body. When I paint, nothing is held back. It is a therapeutic process for me.”

In Ada Bond’s freakish oil paintings of distorted faces and bald, wrinkled animals, skin is abstracted from the self altogether. Mixing revulsion with humour, these tactile works play on “the saccharin sweetness of a prescribed ‘pink’ girlhood”, and provoke the kind of body horror triggered by Heidi Klum’s worm costume last Halloween.

Whether in the uncanny moments that catch you off guard, or in the scenes that strike a chord, Bonner-Evans believes the show is, at its core, about connection. “It welcomes vulnerability and collectivity,” she says. “My hope is that the viewer can experience their own sense of connection and find elements of themselves and their experiences reflected in the works.” 

Skin Deep is showing at Studio West in Notting Hill, London from March 11 until April 5 2023.

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