Shona McAndrew Reinterprets the Female Nude in Bold, Exuberant Paintings

Alina Cohen
Sep 5, 2019 10:07PM

Shona McAndrew, Daniela, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.

Shona McAndrew still remembers the first time she saw a painting of a plus-size woman. In 2010, she was visiting Paris’s Centre Pompidou with her Brandeis University art professor, Susan Lichtman, during the museum’s Lucian Freud retrospective. The late British artist’s portrait of Sue Tilley, Benefit Supervisor Sleeping (1995), was a revelation for McAndrew. “It was a very specific memory of seeing a big body and being in awe of it—and not disgusted,” the 28-year-old Philadelphia-based artist remembered. In response, she made her own drawing of Tilley and posted it to Instagram. Tilley messaged her back, praising the work.

In a new suite of artworks, which go on view at Tribeca gallery Chart this Friday, McAndrew says she’s pulling off a “Lucian Freud move.” Over the past four-and-a-half months, she’s created nine paintings and five sculptures of female friends and acquaintances, with an emphasis on her models’ flesh. The show, entitled “MUSE,” is a cheeky riff on art history and an exuberant examination of the female form—in all shapes and sizes.

Shona McAndrew, Amelia, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.

Shona McAndrew, Cecilia, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.


Though McAndrew has garnered acclaim for her life-sized papier-mâché sculptures of plus-sized women, including herself, the Chart show will be her first solo venture at a New York gallery. The opportunity arose this past March, when she created one of the stand-out booths at the Spring/Break Art Fair. Curated by Lauren Powell, McAndrew’s presentation comprised a full-scale papier-mâché replica of her bedroom. At the center, the artist placed nude sculptures of herself and her boyfriend reclining on their bed as she stroked his papier-mâché penis. Intricate environmental details complemented the installation’s bold sexuality—the faux bedroom was bedecked with an overflowing teal dresser; hanging plants; paisley wallpaper; an Alice Neel painting book beneath the bed; and a plate of peanut butter, apple, and celery on the bedside table. Curator and art advisor Maria Brito took note. Just after Spring/Break closed, she reached out to McAndrew with a long text; she’d been speaking with Chart founder Clara Ha, who wanted to offer McAndrew the opening show in the gallery’s fall line-up, with Brito curating. The proposition was an ideal opportunity for the artist. “I love working with women,” McAndrew said. “It’s one of my favorite things.”

Shona McAndrew, Alina , 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.

This sentiment bears out in all the new work. To generate her paintings, McAndrew developed a multi-part process that allowed her to collaborate with nine women. First, she took pictures of herself mimicking the postures of women in art historical paintings such as Théodore Chassériau’s A Bath in the Harem (1849) and Antoine Calbet’s Oriental Beauty (1883). “It’s the first time I’ve ever sent a picture to anyone when my vagina’s visible,” McAndrew recalled of her most revealing shot. She then created digital collages and sent them to friends and fellow artists including Cheyenne Julien and Alina Perez. These aesthetic pen pals sent back pictures of themselves, interpreting McAndrew’s pictures with their own bodies, in their own homes.

Shona McAndrew, Deka, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.

The final step of the process required McAndrew to paint her muses in their chosen postures—and their chosen degrees of dress or undress—and generate her own bright, decorative, backdrops. Daniela (2019), for example, features the titular model reclining nude on a teal, knit blanket, looking away from the viewer and propping herself up with her elbow. If her position looks familiar, that’s because it riffs off Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s famous 1814 painting, La Grande Odalisque. A riot of patterns surround Daniela, including a red-sunflowered bedspread; floral, fur, and striped pillows; a checked pink curtain; and flowery wallpaper. A plate props up a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—McAndrew’s contemporary interpretation of the plate of grapes that adorned many an old-school canvas. While the background revels in sensory overload, the foreground focuses on the subtle shifts and curves of Daniela’s bare skin. Yet McAndrew has faithfully preserved her model’s tattoos—an urn, a flower, and a pair of busts with one figure blowing bubble gum—which propose the body as a site of decoration and invention as well.

Shona McAndrew, Caroline, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.

Shona McAndrew, Jay , 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.

McAndrew is also exhibiting sculptures, created from papier-mâché and mounted on steel and aluminum frames. McAndrew sourced their hair—American Girl Doll wigs—from Etsy. “They’re not dolls. I don’t really like props,” she says as she attempts to explain her new scale. “I feel very protective over them. You just want to live around them. There’s something different, softer. Maybe, at least to me, maternal.” Cecilia (2019) twists at her torso, looking over her left shoulder. She drags a blue blanket behind her. McAndrew explains that the posture derived from a story her once friend told her about trying to look at a pimple on her butt. There’s nothing sacred or off-limits in McAndrew’s representations: She makes likenesses of quirky contemporary women, blemishes and all.

Shona McAndrew, Alyssa, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.

“It all started with the idea of a ‘woman cave,’” McAndrew said of her original idea for the show. While men claim domestic spaces for themselves and their grooming rituals, women often must look outside their homes for comfort—to public spaces or the salon. McAndrews’s work simultaneously turns the gallery into a new space for women within the art world and connects to a long legacy of aesthetic muses. “I like the idea of freezing a moment and it being art historical somehow,” says McAndrew. “That you belong as much as they do in this history of women being represented.”

Alina Cohen