By CLARE GEMIMA December 3, 2023
The evocative universe of Maud Madsen unfolded a captivating narrative of adolescence, and the nuanced complexities of the female form in her most recent exhibition, Dog Days, at Half Gallery. From the delicate concealment of her subject’s faces, to the autobiographical threads woven into her clothing choices, Madsen shared her musings on the gaze, the female form, and the vulnerabilities of a worriless childhood in conversation with Clare Gemima. This interview offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the artist’s paintings and drawings where luscious acrylic and delicate graphite render the intersections of innocence and discomfort that come with developing an adult, female self-awareness.
Clare Gemima: I’ve noticed many of your works include very small glimpses of your main figure’s faces, with some of them concealing their eyes and mouth entirely with their hands. What is your personal stance on the “gaze”, and how do you feel as though Dog Days embraces or rejects its prominence within Western theoretical art histories?
Maud Madsen: The relationship between the subject and the viewer is definitely something I’m thinking about. Throughout my larger body of work, I’ve played with the balance between awareness and obliviousness that comes with adolescence. I want to believe my character is always somewhat aware of the viewer, holding their gaze in some, but in others, self-consciously shielding her body. What I was aiming to do in Dog Days specifically was to draw attention to the moment when a girl becomes aware of her body as something others use to evaluate her worth. The rites of childhood in these paintings show her starting to understand something that will affect her for the rest of her life.
Clare Gemima: Another aspect of your work that struck me was your precise detailing on various finishes of patterns, textiles, and in your depiction of textures. How did you decide what clothes your subject would wear in Baby Doll?
Maud Madsen: So, the clothing choices in my works are partly autobiographical: all of the clothing items are references to things I wore, my sisters wore, or that were passed along from my older sister to me and my younger sisters.
Clare Gemima: Is there a personally compulsive obsession with voluptuous parts of the female form, or is it more of a comment on contemporary or cultural society?
Maud Madsen: Nothing so cut and dried - I want my figures to read as mature bodies, to personify the moment when we look back on our childhoods with an adult-awareness. I wanted them to have weight and to be imperfect, to be allowed to take up space and radiate that overriding sense of self-awareness and awkwardness. To amplify that feeling, I like to play with perspectives and space to make my characters look like they’re compressed or outgrowing their environments.
Clare Gemima: Do you feel conscious of how you, or specifically your body, are perceived objectively, or are you more concerned with the personal relationship you have with your own body image?
Maud Madsen: Well, I was inspired to begin my current work when I was thinking back to my childhood, and how my relationship with my growing body greatly influenced my sense of self. However, I believe that my awareness of being watched and evaluated or measured up to a standard, is a feeling I’ve never been able to outgrow.
Clare Gemima: Could you elaborate on the challenges and rewards of capturing specific moments through color in paint, as opposed to using monotonal graphite? What sort of things happen during this material translation?
Maud Madsen: There will always be a concern about being too prescriptive when using colour versus black-and-white drawing. With the specificity comes losing some of the formal ambiguities that make looking at drawing so fun. I think that’s why limited palettes appeal to me; there are more parallels to drawing. On the plus side, I love how colour can allude to time and place, like using it to describe how you remember light behaving at 5pm, versus how it actually acts at 5pm. One of the fun parts of painting is that it doesn’t need to function like real-life.
Clare Gemima: What made you want to emphasize and focus on your figure’s breasts, stomachs, and asses? What is the obsession with these vulnerable parts of the body, and is this interest explicitly tied to the female body?
Maud Madsen: I began this work by examining childhood spaces and the sense of insecurity or safety they could evoke. As I reconstructed those memories, I wanted to extend the metaphor to the body - itself a site of vulnerability or refuge. The poses I use are meant to be those of girls in the middle of each activity - so just as children aren't aware of their bodily presentations, they might choose stances that look awkward or display body parts adults would not draw attention to. At the same time, because my character is an adult, she can't truly inhabit the space with the same carefree obliviousness that a child might - she's hyperaware of the viewer, and it takes her out of what might otherwise be a magical experience. Until now, I've focused on paintings influenced by my experiences, but I'm also more interested in women's relationships with each other and themselves.
Clare Gemima: In Dog Days, what are your paintings able to do that you, physically or mentally, cannot?
Maud Madsen: I like that my main character can sometimes be me, and other times she can be her. She can sometimes be a vehicle to talk about things I’m processing that bother me. She can be a way to revisit spaces and relationships that no longer exist. She can explore in ways I can’t, and be brave and unapologetic in ways I can only dream of.
Clare Gemima: Are you able to talk about the extremely sneaky Lego block that’s hiding beneath your figure’s thigh in Frilly? Is the character aware of this? Can she physically feel it?
Maud Madsen: I don’t know if it’s silly, but I imagined it like the pea from the Princess and the Pea. The princess is so delicate and womanly that she can feel the pea, even between piles and piles of mattresses. In my version, it’s a Lego, and there are no mattresses–I don’t know if she can feel it, but if she can, does she care?
Maude Madsen’s Dog Days ran at Half Gallery through November 10, 2023. WM
Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.view all articles from this author