Gender Is Beautifully Blurred in Maggie West's Photos of Naked Bodies
Through Maggie West’s probing lens, all things are equally revered. With scientific equanimity, the photographer’s artistic work broaches portraiture and still life within an inverted color scheme that makes the viewer reconsider just what he's looking at. She makes flowers look like kaleidoscopes, bodily fluids look like candy-colored chemicals, and kissing look like an improbable puzzle of positive and negative space made of line, shape and color.
For the release of her new book, 23, West trained her eye on a familiar artistic muse: the nude. Only there’s a contemporary twist. The book’s 50 pages feature models who represent a spectrum of human experience and sexuality. Twenty-three cisgender and transgender men and women appear with West’s signature prismatic lightscape carefully coating their bodies, like paint recording gestures on a canvas.
“In general, I was looking at a lot of other nude books and felt that they were very binary in their representations of masculinity and femininity,” the L.A.-based artist explains as she recalls the impetus for the project. In casting her subjects, she intentionally sought “people that didn’t fall into a stereotypical idea of masculine and feminine,” and it was important to her that no one group be offset. No image is specifically cataloged with a title or a name or a gender identifier. Instead, West’s subjects are presented together as a Technicolor snapshot of humanity.
Many of the models are West’s friends and acquaintances, so the book also functions as her slice of Los Angeles, the photographer’s home base for close to a decade.
At a favorite haunt in Franklin Village, she candidly explains that her project is less about politics than it is about honesty. “I don’t think inclusivity should necessarily be considered a political act,” she says. “It’s not radical at all.
“It seems like a much more political act to not include all these people that exist. That seems super political to me.”
It’s no wonder she feels at home here, bathed in the cafe’s purple and yellow lights. “So much of our visual perception is color,” she says, explaining her attraction to the juxtaposition of natural elements against artificial environments. “When you wildly alter [color], it forces the viewer to re-examine their preconceived notions.”
Her technical approach has a transcendental effect. It's off-kilter and makes the familiar seem new. In her previous photo book, Kiss, for example, her style is cast upon a social habit that's taken for granted as normal. “When you look at kissing in a more abstract way, it’s pretty weird,” she says with a detached chuckle. “We want to express affection so we smash our mouths together.”
Within West’s color field, each model in 23 was given free reign to represent themselves and were encouraged to use body language to express something authentic from within. To the photographer’s pleasure, gender identity isn’t always legible in these portraits. “It was really interesting watching people look at the book and not be able to see a lot of who’s trans and who’s not,” she says. For a book that suggests that people are more similar than they are different, it’s a desired effect.
The gender binary is intentionally blurred because it’s largely a fiction, the essayists who've penned the book’s opening assert. “Gender is a spectrum that cannot be explained with pastel colors or genitals,” writes Arisce Wanzer, trans model and activist. Wanzer is featured in 23 as both cultural critic and subject, gracing the book’s first hyper-chromatic page. As writer Gaby Dunn writes, those who don’t neatly kowtow to existing power structures experience an existence inextricable from resistance. “If you are non-normative, it's a radical act just to be visible,” she writes in a punchy call to arms. MTV’s Darcie Wilder rambles vividly, “I love these photographs because they remind me that everything, especially our bodies and what we do with them, aren't separated by borders and lines, but exist on a gradient.” It’s what you might call a rainbow of perspectives, assembling a would-be artist statement.
Porn star–turned-novelist Christopher Zeischegg’s introductory essay takes a more personal slant, recounting his experience of knowing West over the course of their collaborations, including 23 and Fluids. He offers his perspective on the woman behind the lens, bearing witness to West’s personal and artistic evolution — it’s a kind of love letter. The two are now dating.
West acknowledges the cultural context her work is born into but eschews lofty commentary. “I just wanted to curate these people, take off their clothes and let them do their thing,” she states plainly of her “harmonious scale of people.”
In a way that's as bare-faced as her photographs look, she says, “I don’t think I’m going to solve the world’s gender or sexual crises. I just hope that people stop making assumptions about groups they don’t know anything about.” Have a look for yourself.
Maggie West's 23 launch party takes place at the Rooftop at the Standard, 550 S. Flower St., downtown; Wed., April 26, 8 p.m.-mid.; free with RSVP. bit.ly/MaggieWest23. Alaska Thunderfuck performs.
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