Kirsty Whiten creates drawings, paintings and street art. She is based in Scotland and works across the globe, often with performers, musicians and other artists.
In these paintings, shared with The Demented Goddess team, she approaches an alternative view of Eros. She sees the human as a beautiful animal. Her paintings probe a new pathway of emotional and erotic being through swapping gender roles. Wronger Rites and Icon Oracle are two series of Kirsty’s works available as art books. See our ‘Who We Are’ page for more details.
The Demented Goddess (DG): These carnivalesque, erotic paintings overthrow conventional roles of gender and power. Colour zaps the eye. Alongside a sense of theatre and play, did you have a particular intention?
Kirsty Whiten: Both Wronger Rites and Oracles are thinking about ritual. I was noticing our universal need to set time aside for meaningful rituals. Certain dancing, eating can be ritual – it’s really deep.
I can see this school playground from my window. One day I saw the kids come out to discover a dead bird. They were fascinated, repulsed, but couldn’t leave it. They ended up forming a circle and dancing round it. It was so elemental!
Wronger Rites was a series of rituals that I created and illustrated. I invited certain people – for example, ‘The Quing’, the High Priestess of the Wronger Rites, is my friend James, a drag artist. He keeps his beard and has a lovely large round body that he dresses in extreme outfits with the most beautiful make-up. So he feels in-between gender, for me. It’s uncanny and wonderful. We played with costumes and I took photographs and made paintings from those. When you see him standing on tip-toe, with a staff – that tip-toe pose was from James: he wasn’t in heels but wanted them. So his expression is half earthy, half glamourous. I feed on little details from people, like that.
DG: Can we talk about the spiritual and erotic forces of ‘Initiation’? How did you develop the power of this piece?
‘Initiation’ is from a couple years on from the first time we worked in this way. The relationship with the idea and sitter grows over time, bringing more depth.
This pose recalls The Pieta.
Yes, that was a conscious decision.
DG: James appears like a Madonna, tending to your tattooed ‘Christ’ figure, Jimmy. We remain unused to seeing men playing the traditional ‘maternal’ role though, in fact, many contemporary fathers are deeply nurturing and tactile .
Do you feel culture has ambiguous feelings about men having a sensual, quasi-erotic relationship with their child? It’s allowed for women, but men can’t be seen in that role?
Yes. It was a really beautiful moment. James and Jimmy hadn’t previously met. It came at the end of the session. They are physically so different; Jimmy small and slight, James bountiful and highly cultured. I knew they would bond because they are both performers who mix genders in their costumes. It was great fun to play costuming with them because they consider the significance of attire: ‘what does it mean, if I wear the pearls – or fifteen necklaces?’ That’s their shared language. Due to their own personal histories which we’re not going to share here, it was special that they could attain that level of intimacy within that time.
While playing and painting, I was saying, “I don’t want there to be any shame, I want you to offer yourself up.”
I didn’t want there to be any resistance. I wanted a saintly, ecstatic surrender.
The Pieta and St. Theresa inhabit postures that are spiritual and physical, erotic. They go to your heart and your gut. Lots of cruxified Christs are hot. And St. Sebastians can suggest an ecstatic swoon. I wanted to get at that but make it human, see the whole person.
DG: There’s an overlap in your work between the sacred and what might be considered profane – sometimes to delightful, comical effect. But with the creation of this particular piece, ‘Initiation’… we wonder, is it easier, sometimes, to give yourself, when there’s no sex act?
Yeah – in the pictures of embraces, there might be an erotic charge but it’s not a sexual encounter.
DG: And then in this picture, James’ and Jimmy’s roles are reversed. Roles are exchanged, over time, between parent and child, between lovers. They seem to be passing through a deathly passage, a time of deprivation or change.
DG: To be clear, no fucking occurs during these encounters, even when it seems highly priapic?
In paintings where the cunt – strapped-on or ceremonial – is being pulled wide open, it doesn’t necessarily seem an invitation to fuck. You seem to be offering an alternative. We are used to seeing sex freighted with power…
Yeah. Oh, yeah. There’s submission and domination..
DG: And so, despite our continuing ideal of erotic love, it can be very challenging to trust a lover? To reveal ourselves?
There’s lots of power play.
DG: So, if you are inviting people into spaces where they are giving to each other but not having to be sexual, your painting process could provide a lovely release?
Yes…. Not necessarily for them. You’ve articulated something very deep in me, which I was touching in this work, without necessarily intending it. Quite often I’m painting what I want or that I would like to see liberated in myself – and everyone. This intimacy was something I really, really wanted in recent times and wasn’t able to get. It’s poignant that this came through the work.
I made this work when I was going through a bit of a breakdown. I want to deliberately go against art being a commodity; the making of it is where I set my life’s intention and my visceral experience.
DG: The images where gender and species mingle seem to celebrate the act of erotic display. However, given that this display did not lead to actual seductions, what did the painting process deliver, for you and your sitters?
Male and female display feel very different. The men are peacocks but the women are more earthy. None are wearing heels; these women are being more aggressive, owning their space, working against the visual language we’re used to. The men, by contrast are being allowed to work with the prettiness in the costumes.
It’s important to me that there’s tenderness. I don’t wish to expose people to their detriment. Dark humour and silliness can enable that. A bent-legged dance developed in these paintings. And a model would see a previous painting and carry it on, a gesture passed from one sitter to the next.
The whole thing can become performative. I’m playing with someone. The further we went, people posed naked. It was a challenge, to throw off shame. They knew it would be a version of them which is animalistic and anonymous. But it was also a beautiful thing to give me.
DG: You regularly exhibit in Scotland and internationally. How do people respond to your subversions of sex, gender and species?
There’s no fucking in my pictures but sometimes people are wildly offended! It shows their own inhibitions.
All this work is about fluidity in identity. I’m trying to suggest liberation and connectedness to your nature – and I mean nature in its raw power – and that can be challenging to people’s sexuality.
Art by Kirsty Whiten