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Culture Compass

Interview with Annie Kevans

by Loma-Ann Marks
25 March 2013

Interview with Brit artist Annie Kevans, whose work Crush appears as part of the Lindt Big Egg Hunt.
At first glance, Annie Kevans’ paintings are of the beautiful people, past and present: Veronica Lake, River Phoenix, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Brooke Shields. But see behind their haunting eyes and innocence, and there’s a troubling darkness. The paintings reveal the truth about celebrity, power and the corruption of childhood, putting a mirror up to a tempting and apparantly glamorous world to which we are eager voyeurs, willing to turn a blind eye to its secrets.
Kevans, who has had solo exhibitions in New York, London and Vienna and whose work appears in collections including the Pallant House Gallery, 21c Museum, the Saatchi Collection and the collections of Lord Rothermere, Stephen Fry, Marc Quinn, Adam Sender, and John McEnroe, reveals a sphere that’s increasingly within reach, and a seemingly viable career option for today’s children.
“Surveys repeatedly show that children want to ‘be famous’ more than anything else.  This isn’t surprising when you look at how TV shows, magazines, music and toys are marketed to children.  If I were a child now, I’d want to be famous.” says Kevans.

Annie Kevans
River Phoenix, 2009
Oil on paper, 50 x 40 cm
Her series Lost Boys featured former child stars who ended up suffering  devastation and humiliation and Girls explored the sexualisation of young girls, with the displayed paintings unframed, so they looked liked posters, in the setting of a little girl’s bedroom.
So what inspires her to explore this very difficult area?
“I wrote my thesis at art school  on images of children in art and, naturally, I wrote about the sexualisation of children. I was interested in how, on the one hand, images of children are seen as twee, whilst on the other hand, they are seen as dangerously sexual,” she explains.

Annie Kevans
Brooke Shields with Raised Arms, 2006
Oil on paper, 75 x 50 cm
Annie who trained at Central St. Martin’s and was a finalist in both the Women of the Future awards and the Jerwood Drawing Prize has translated this research into her unique and distinctive portraits, achieved by painting on certain oil painting paper rather than canvas.
“I attempted my first painting of Hitler as a boy in 1999 and worked on a series of ‘evil’ children sitting on stools a couple of years later (these included Fred West, Bloody Mary and Hitler),” she says. “I returned to the idea in 2003, a year before graduation, determined to create a large series of works showing dictators as little boys.  I found that colourful canvases didn’t work together and discovered some oil-painting paper which I absolutely loved.  I love the surface of this particular paper and the fact that the emphasis is put on the concept behind the work.”

Annie Kevans
Michael Jackson in Blue with Yellow Shirt, 2009
Oil on paper, 50 x 40 cm
The soft translucence of the portraits enable the viewer to almost see through the paint straight to the core which as at all of Kevans’ work : the heartbreaking duality of vulnerability and power; innocence and experience; truth and reality.
This crux was poignantly illustrated by one of her subjects, Doreen Tracey who was a Mouseketeer in Disney’s famous Mickey Mouse Club, who Kevans  painted along with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera for her series Mouseketeers.  As an adult, Doreen had posed for Playboy, semi-clad in her ears and Mouseketeer jumper. She contacted Kevans by email,  thrilled with the  painting of her as a serious little girl.  She signed the email “Always your biggest fan. Mouseketeer Doreen Tracey”.
Of course, portraying children can be tricky, and many artists  have fallen foul of the popular media and been accused of ‘using’ children, or presenting their young subjects pornographically ( photographer Vee Speers was accused of just that last year with her exhibition at the Little Black Gallery. )
“People today are almost programmed to associate pictures of nude or semi-nude children with sex and paedophilia,” says Kevans. “ Yet they don’t seem to mind the ever-present sexualized children in advertising, which seems to get away with this exploitation by making sure the children are not naked.
”I think art can and does represent children in a way that popular media can’t.  The important thing to look at is the motive behind the work.  For many people, the link between photography and pornography is such that it is particularly difficult to accept that photographs of naked or semi-naked children could be anything but pornographic. As far as I can see Vee Speers’ work is not pornographic as the children in her photos are not sexualized.  Some of them have some flesh showing but we need to stop associating bare flesh with sex.  When we see semi-naked children on the beach we don’t think of sex.”

In an increasingly image-led world  what is Kevans’ take on social media and how we present ourselves in the digital realm?
“In the past, a person’s entire life would be illustrated by one surviving image of them, if there was one at all, “ she says. “ This element of mystery is gradually disappearing as we share increasing numbers of photographs with each other and leave them floating in cyberspace for future generations to look at.  I think Facebook is an incredibly detailed interactive diary of our lives and I think there is something quite healthy about it.”
Perhaps the truth, despite our photo-shopping, curating and hiding, will always out.
See Annie Kevans’ egg Crush which refers to youthful infatuations with child stars as well as to the pressure put upon children working within the media, as part of Lindt’s Big Egg Hunt, at Covent Garden, London, until 7th April. More information here
Her series, ‘Boys’, featuring 30 ‘evil’ political leaders as little boys will be shown at the Saatchi Gallery ‘The Power of Paper’ exhibition in June.

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