Canberra-born artist Jess Cochrane is known for her large-scale artworks, mostly of women, which feature her signature style of messy, gestural paint strokes over the top of her glossy, flawlessly perfected photographic portraits. The juxtaposition results in an unsettling and thought-provoking examination of societal perceptions of beauty. “All of my work questions what we’ve been conditioned to think of as beautiful and grotesque, especially in the context of femininity,” Cochrane explains. “That leads into an interrogation of our culture. The easy way to describe my art is anti-Photoshop,” she says.
A rising star of the art world, Cochrane moved to London in 2018 and was signed shortly afterwards by her New Compton Street gallery, Rhodes Contemporary Art. In 2019, she was given her first exhibition– a joint show featuring the works of the late modern British master, Francis Bacon. “I still can’t believe I had the opportunity,” she says. “It was my art school dream to be able to connect my work to an artist like that.”
Not only has London been good for Cochrane professionally (“It has definitely stolen my heart,” she says. “It’s the first place I’ve lived where I’ve felt like I can truly just embrace who I am and to shake off this weird self-consciousness I’ve always had, that living in Australia has sort of taught me”), London has also stolen Cochrane’s heart in a romantic sense. She is engaged to acclaimed English record producer Ben Ash, aka Two Inch Punch. The pair are expecting their first child mid-year.
Cochrane is currently back home in Canberra for her latest exhibition, “Mixed Signals”, at aMBUSH Gallery, Kambri. One of the works, “Canberra Milk”, features one of Cochrane’s childhood friends and her baby with a carton of Canberra Milk in the foreground. Cochrane says she initially intended the painting would delve into conversations about how society perceives women who are mothers versus those who are not, and what a confusing and polarising experience it can be for women to navigate. However, the experience became even more meaningful after Cochrane found out about her own pregnancy. “I have found it a really interesting work to create because I knew I wanted to paint it before I came home, but I didn’t realise I was going to be pregnant while I was painting it,” she says.
Like many other of Cochrane’s works, this piece speaks to her fascination with semiotics and the subversion of meaning in imagery coupled with her love of fashion and editorial photography. Her works seek to challenge the highly perfected images we are served on social media and in advertising campaigns and to encourage her viewers to consider what lies beneath the surface.
“If you think of the work that I make and the paint as this gestural, flowing form, it’s very similar to when you’re drawing from life. It’s very honest, and it’s a wonderful feeling to paint something that’s moving and realistic,” she says. “Whereas when you look at magazine images, they’re still very two-dimensional and often very Photoshopped. Everyone who grew up in the 90s and 2000s grew up with the ‘diet culture’, and it has been hugely impactful,” she continues. “I think those two elements will always live within my work. And the work will always keep evolving with those core memories that are personal to me.”
Who and or what have been the biggest influences on your artistic style?
“I always feel like I should probably say an artist or a genre of art but really, I feel that the human condition and my lived experience is very informative to my work. In the sense that a lot of the things that I feel, perhaps being self-conscious or having anxiety about your appearance, or the ways that you express yourself or disguise yourself in life, I think they’re all very relatable traits. And I think that’s my work resonates with the people that it does.
I’ve always been connected to art and liked learning about art. But at the same time, I’ve always just had this obsession and fascination with fashion, popular culture, and the beauty industry. Not so much because I’m some incredibly well-informed fashion guru by any means, but I find it interesting how people take fashion or popular culture things and then make them their own. I have a genuine fascination with character and how we all express ourselves.”
Where did the inspiration for this body of work come from, and what are your key messages?
“It is a natural progression from my last show, which looked at symbolism from 16th and 17th century artworks. These works often had hidden meanings that depicted something about women. For example, a carnation represented everlasting love and marriage. So, if you saw an artwork from the 17th century and you saw a carnation growing on the ground in the corner of that painting, it was a subliminal message that indicated the woman was either worthy of marrying or is married. I became fascinated by how we communicate visually and how so much can be said with these visual cues.
So, when I took that into a modern context, I painted a portrait of two of my friends who live together, and they have such a platonic and wonderful love for each other, and I painted them with a carnation. I have an interest in the subversion of symbolism. I find it fascinating to think that even in the modern age, if someone sees a portrait of two women embracing, they’re probably going to assume, ‘ooh, that’s sexy’, but there’s so much more to that than just a stereotypical view of two women embracing. So, to bring it into my latest body of work, I wanted to carry on with what felt natural to me and take it into a modern context of things that we consume or things we use to represent who we are as a person. Not so much looking a symbolism or semiotics from the past but of the current day.”
Do you have a favourite artwork?
“When I learned about this painting at in theory class at art school, I had my mind blown, by a painting called “Portrait of Olympia, Edward Manet, 1863″. It’s such a beautiful painting, and it says so much about the reclamation of power of women and femininity. So many portraits of the time were for the male gaze with elongated necks, parted lips, and very open facing towards the viewer, but if you look at her body language, she’s really telling the viewer, “Nah- ah”. This artwork has informed my work and my thought process quite heavily when I think about it. It’s such a gentle painting in a sense, but it just says so much, and I think it’s so beautiful. I visited the Musee D’Orsay in 2009 before the pandemic started, and I saw her in real life. It was the best moment.”
How has the pandemic affected your art?
“I found 2020 particularly lonely. Being an artist, you often get a lot of your motivation and ideas from having creative conversations with other people. I was used to working in studios in a group setting, so there were always people around, and people would pop in, and you could have a chat about art. Or you could go and get a coffee with a friend and get involved with the culture of London. Then, like everyone else, I had to work from home, so it was an odd isolating experience, but it did allow me to cut the fat and focus on researching art history elements. Less procrastination and more reading!”
Do you procrastinate often?
“I am the absolute G.O.A.T of procrastination. Ask my mum. Honestly, I’m very good at it. But then I wonder if it’s there for a purpose. For example, sometimes I feel that I am procrastinating in my studio, but actually, it’s more that I am reflecting on what I’ve made or my next move, but then sometimes I just get carried away with going to the plant shop near my house and not thinking about work.”
What is the worst studio you’ve ever had?
“Oh my god. It was when I arrived in London in 2018. And I hadn’t decided if I wanted to stay, so I was there as a tourist. But I wanted to get a spot to paint in and try and hustle my way into opportunities, and I got this space in Peckham, which was basically like this hot desk workspace. It was really beautiful, but it was mostly filled with graphic designers and people who use laptops rather than do physical work making. It was a railway arch under Peckham Rail station. It was great in Summer, but as it got into Autumn, it was just so cold and dark. The plumbing in Peckham Rye station is so old, and there was a burst pipe at the station that travelled through all the railway arches, so anyone working in the railway arches got the stench of the sewerage.”
How do you know when a piece is finished? What does that process look like for you?
“Usually, there’s a balance between the amount of photographic image you can see and the amount of paint. There’s no exact recipe; it’s more like a gut feeling than anything. It comes from doing it for quite a few years now and knowing what I’m after for every work. My biggest fear is to overcook a painting. So, you have got to step back and check all the time.”
Jess Cochrane’s exhibition “Mixed Signals” is on at aMBUSH Gallery from Feb 10 – March 20 2022.