By KURT MCVEY, April 2018
“That ‘soft and squishy’ comment…” begins the rising art-star Shona McAndrew, over the phone from Philadelphia, “…for about two months I couldn’t hang out with my mom without her making a joke about it.”
Shona is alluding to an impromptu conversation we had within the NSFW: Female Gaze exhibition at the Museum of Sex, which opened in June last year and still (check it out if you haven’t) features over two dozen, supremely talented, all female-identifying artists.
Much like her MFA Thesis exhibition at RISD in 2016, McAndrew saw one of her increasingly iconic, painterly, paper-mâché sculptures of “plus-size” women frozen in casually candid moments of modern primate bliss, staged front and center. It’s common curatorial knowledge now that these playfully confrontational works, though ironically rendered in non-confrontational poses, are fantastic conversation starters; contemporary salon-style icebreakers for the easily triggered and the effortlessly callous alike.
During our micro-interview at MoSex, a brief aside from the larger conversation with one of the show’s co-curators, Beautiful Boy photographer Lissa Rivera, McAndrew mentioned that she was interested in doing a future sculpture that, besides herself, would feature her boyfriend, the artist and fellow RISD alum, Stuart Lantry. More specifically, the piece would show a nude McAndrew holding onto her nude boyfriend’s “soft and squishy” penis while chillin’ out and watching a movie on Netflix, one of the artist’s most cherished, yet simple pleasures.
“My mom threatened I could never tell her when I watched a movie because she now knows what I do when I watch a movie,” offers McAndrew with a tranquil yet impish chortle. “I have cousins I haven’t spoken to in a decade sending me just that comment. I thought, at this point, if I don’t make it, I might lose family members.”
Thankfully, McAndrew did indeed make this work, and now this writer can claim a small, tongue in cheek, behind the scenes, sprinkle-sized credit for it coming into existence. This ambitious piece is called Stu and Me (Netflix and Chill), 2018, and is prominently featured in MOIRA, her recent solo exhibition at Philadelphia’s artist-run Pilot+Projects. The show opened March 24th and runs through April 20th. “Every other piece took about a month to make, and that’s usually just one figure,” says McAndrew of this multi-faceted work, which is now emerging as the unofficial centerpiece of the show. “This was two people, one sculpture and a bed, and I only had a month to do it.”
McAndrew and Lantry are quite aware that they’re operating in the tradition of great artist couples, most specifically the collaborative lover-muses, Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle (married in 1971). In many ways McAndrew and Lantry directly inhabit the joint spiritual personae of this power couple, a notion they wholly embraced while isolated together in a live-work studio 8,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada mountain range for a roughly eight month window between NSFW: Female Gaze and MOIRA. “We lived and worked for free in a house where we transformed everything but one small bedroom into our studio,” notes McAndrew. “Stuart made his crazy machines as I made my ladies.”
“I hope you realize how gigantic this woman is-the violence and the huge and fabulous power that emanate from her,” said Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) in reference to their (at the time) scandalous collaborative work, Hon (Elle) or Hon-en-Katedrall, 1966, a colorful, site-specific installation heavy in the Dada tradition, unveiled to critical acclaim at Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden. For this work, Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle invited the public (over 80,000 during the show’s run) to enter through the sculpture’s huge vagina. Once inside, guests navigated a house and various rooms that featured a rotation of Greta Garbo films, a goldfish pond, as well as Tinguely’s kinetic mechanisms and fantastical assemblages made by Finnish artist Per Olof Ultvedt.
What I find interesting about Tinguely’s quote about “huge and fabulous power,” is the reality that McAndrew’s sculptures, much like herself, embody these things. However, McAndrew often describes herself in different terms. “I always say I’m a great hugger because I’m mainly made out of pillows,” she says with more pride than self-deprecation. “I’m soft and squishy myself. This always gets a guaranteed giggle and people always accept my hug. It’s very true to who I am.”
I’d wager Lantry, much like McAndrew’s appreciation of his (pre or post coital) “soft and squishy” manhood, not only appreciates the pillowy sensation his partner’s body provides, but also Shona’s formidable nature as an artist, maker, sculptor and yes, a woman. For half a year, McAndrew would spend 12 hours a day lifting, sawing, sanding, and “doing very little sitting.” Creating this type of art is hard physical labor and McAndrew delights in the fact that the work’s existence alone is a fierce rebuttal to lazy fat-shaming tropes and stereotypes.
A little over a week before the show, McAndrew and Lantry packed up these weighty sculptures and drove them cross-country by themselves. When I push Shona to recognize and speak to her considerable strength in physical terms and not just her stalwart values or obvious metaphysical capacity to imagine, create and influence, she offers: “My mom told me a few days ago that I’m actually quite scary when I’m angry.”
McAndrew-the artist, the human-seems to live rather intentionally in this past-post modern world, a place where one must use themselves as an avatar to educate the ignorant masses, and oh boy, are they ignorant. Social ills, in 2018 manifest most clearly and pervasively on social media, as we know. It’s here they fester and incubate, before blowing a gasket in a high school or in the Whitehouse, for instance. McAndrew, the young artist and socio-political avatar, just happens to be producing an exponential number of uncanny sculptural avatars (Mollie, Caroline, Elizabeth, Louise, Josephine), which dramatically increases feedback, for better or worse.
Like many artists pushing the body image or sexual acceptance conversation forward, McAndrew often sees her work censored and removed from platforms like Facebook and Instagram. While the imagery is up, however, she has no problem engaging with trolls, bullies and other low-grade misogynists, perhaps to a fault. “My boyfriend says I engage too much, but it takes so little for a big change to happen in someone’s mind. A little comment at the right time and they really begin to think.”
This also seems to include seemingly reasonable adults who for one reason or another, find offense in McAndrew’s pleasantly plebian, deliberately “shameless” and therefore perhaps, outwardly ostentatious works. “Someone reposted a picture of that sculpture (Netflix and Chill), and the first comment was, ‘Why wont she post a photo of a more realistic looking man? He wouldn’t be so thin and lean and muscular.’ In reality, I softened him up,” says McAndrew. “My boyfriend; his body is really hard and lean. I’m showing his hardness next to my softness. It’s so much about me touching him. He’s barely aware, just watching TV. He’s there for my enjoyment.”
McAndrew agrees, that the one thing that makes someone more uncomfortable than the presence of an overweight person, is an overweight woman being romantic with a conventionally attractive man. “A lot [of online detractors] are plus-size women,” she says. “And much more than you’d think. It’s because many plus-size women don’t think they’re pretty enough. They seem to be bothered by the way I represent them. I take pleasure with responding with comments that help them reconsider.”
McAndrew, who was born and raised in Paris-where she lived until she was 18 (before heading to Brandeis University in Waltham, MA)-recalls feeling the same way (angry, perplexed) when, as an insecure teenager, saw a svelte Frenchman enthusiastically making out with an overweight woman on the train. “It’s like looking in the mirror and realizing, ‘Oh shit, I’m fat!’ But at some point, you need to stop having that feeling like, ‘I’m not allowed to feel good.’ When you finally give yourself that permission, it sets other people off.”
Many people have missed the point in McAndrew’s work. Online, she receives blunt critical appraisals: “It’s all about fat women showing they can be sexual” or “My boyfriend says I’m beautiful and that’s all I need.” Her reply to the latter, she says, is often something like, “What if you didn’t need your boyfriend to tell you that you’re beautiful?” Oui, the acceptance of others has to begin with self-acceptance.
“What bothers people is the unconventional body,” or so goes Shona’s hypothesis. She sees evidence is the vast number of uncensored, permissive nipples in see-through tops on conventional or model-type bodies versus, say, bigger bodies, scarred bodies or queer bodies. “You can’t deny it,” McAndrew insists. “I’m in that world. What connects all of them is they don’t look like Victoria's Secret angels.” Here surfaces a moment of intersectional awareness. “I’m very aware of how white my show is,” she says. “They’re all about me right now. I just spent eight months up in the mountains. I couldn’t talk to anyone, so it could only be about my experience.”
But the title is telling. Who or what is MOIRA? “They’re all Moira,” says the artist, before adding, “Moira is my mom’s name.” Before getting into McAndrew’s fascinating parentage, another snippet of socio-political self-awareness: “If I work with someone, I need to talk to them and see if our stories sound similar,” she says. “It could be exactly the same or completely different. But if it’s about a hidden reality or reality behind closed doors, it has to belong to that actual person. It has to be from their mouth.”
Therefore, don’t expect McAndrew to turn her next show into a crass, politically correct, Banana Republic commercial for the sake of representation. Instead, one should view MOIRA as a deeply personal exploration of a life ever on the path to greater self-acceptance and spiritual refinement. “To me, art is a beautiful poem,” she says. “You can tell when you’ve read a book that marks you versus a book that, when the moment you close it, it’s done nothing. I think too much art is the book you read at the beach."
What is McAndrew’s favorite book, you might wonder? The World According to Garp by John Irving. “It mesmerized me,” she admits. Anyone who’s read Garp knows that it tackles hyperbolized identity politics (see: Roberta Muldoon and "Ellen Jamesians") and that it’s extremely complicated from the word go. The book is ripe with intentionally problematic actions. That’s what makes it a classic. It’s controversial (read: Sexual Suspect), while making fun of contrived controversy and oppression as fuel for social and economic capital. As much as it’s about a man (Garp) struggling with the nature of love and how it’s inextricably tied up with his wife and kids, it’s very much about the infinitely cosmic power of a mother’s love and its immense healing potential.
So how much is MOIRA about Shona’s own mother, or about the relationship between a mother and her daughter? “She’s my maker,” says Shona, her smile breaking through the receiver. “She’s Scottish and came from a very poor family. She got her college education in her ‘30s and had me when she was 40. She’s very conventionally beautiful-elegant. I’ve been getting texts from people, not saying congratulations about the show, but texts like, “Oh my god, your mom is so beautiful!”
McAndrew acknowledges that her mother was a real head turner, but that she, also, somehow never felt noticed, strangely. Her father, Sam Okoshken, though a lawyer by trade, is also an enthusiastic photographer. “He loved beautiful women,” says McAndrew. “There were a lot of photos of my mom, less than dressed, laying around growing up. There’s one I remember. She’s standing in this huge doorway-just a silhouette-and she looks as if someone designed her in lab. It’s unreal.”
Shona’s father, 77, is first generation American. His parents were Polish and Russian. He met a young, Scottish Moira McAndrew via an administrative exchange program. “She got a job as dad’s secretary,” says McAndrew. “They were lovers for 20 years. Father was deeply a bachelor and had a big thick mustache. He still plays the piano, sings, and writes. At the time, he wasn’t too sure he wanted a baby, and then he met me and was like, ‘Damn she’s cute.’ My dad is just the weirdest human but he’s also my best friend.”
Things weren’t always so effortless between them however. In early adolescence, McAndrew was diagnosed with Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which effects one in ten women and can lead to increased androgen (male hormone) levels, which effects metabolism and can lead to extreme weight fluctuations. “It took a lot of time to figure it out,” says McAndrew. “It was hard for my dad.”
Another hypothesis thrown out during this interview, is the idea that the human species, as an increasingly connected (thanks Internet!) super organism could have a built in social mechanism that compels people to comment and potentially police the health of others as a means to keep the whole strong. McAndrew isn’t buying it.
“It has everything to do with pride,” she says. “Everybody wants the perfect family picture. Just listen to Trump’s disgusting comments about Ivanka. It’s gross, but it’s an obvious point of pride. Every father wants his daughter to get with the best man or his son, a sexy woman. This isn’t even remotely lost on a child. It wasn’t lost on me.”
So, no, McAndrew isn’t promoting obesity, though she’d like you to know, scratch that, to see for yourself, that she has a hot, artistic boyfriend with a sweet six-pack. She’s also ready to help you flip that switch, whether via her fun and impressive “bodies” of work or if she has to take it upon herself to school your ass online. It’s about being ok with yourself for a moment, even if it’s while you’re brushing your teeth on the toilet. MOIRA, an exercise in self-love, is asking, “How do we want to treat each other?”
“People stay in the gallery, often for hours,” says McAndrew, the sculptor, but a painter foremost. “They get low and they get close. I see and hear a lot of giggling. I think I achieved what I wanted to achieve. I get a lot of messages, as many positive as negative. I want to bring happiness as much as I want to question things. But I want happiness.” WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
photo by Monet Luckiview all articles from this author