About the Artist
Anna Cone is a Brooklyn-based photographer and digital collage artist, stimulated by psychic readings, 70s vampires and witches, old master paintings, surrealist films, 19th century Spiritualism, radical women, and the body.
with Lucy Commoner, April 2019
This is your first experience exhibiting with the Wassaic Project. How did you learn about the Wassaic Project and what are your thoughts on being selected to participate in this summer’s exhibition?
I first learned about the Wassaic Project a few years ago when I saw that an artist whose work I admire and follow, Hiba Schahbaz, was doing a residency there. I’ve followed along with the artists-in-residence since and always found their work so inspiring. The Wassaic Project’s mission of inclusivity, collaboration and community is so vital, so I’m absolutely thrilled to participate in this summer’s exhibition. I really connect with both the hopefulness of the exhibition’s theme, Ad Astra per Aspera (“through hardships to the stars”), and the other artists included. I’m especially excited to see my work in dialogue with Kirsten Lamb’s as we are working with many similar themes of art history, decorative arts, and installation.
Having worked as a fashion photographer, you have said that your current digital collage series of works evolved from a reaction to the culture of fashion photography. Can you expand on this thought?
My work is foremost about reclaiming the body. Initially it was a reaction to my experience as a fashion photographer and provided me with a way to resolve the personal issues I had with perpetuating such a narrow acceptance of female beauty and sexuality. The industry’s dark side — the body manipulation, the objectification, the exploitation of young girls — spurred my pursuit to retrain my gaze and repurpose my commercial tools to subvert its ideals. The #metoo era has really highlighted the uneven power dynamics and predatory behavior within the industry as well — it’s really just a microcosm of our culture at large, but since it’s a facet I’ve experienced personally it became the impetus for and continues to drive my work. On fashion shoots and castings I’ve seen women objectified in many different ways, from unwanted sexual advances to cruel criticisms of their bodies. We are inundated with images created in an atmosphere where that treatment is acceptable in fashion, film, and in the history of art. So, I want to create a safe space for artistic expression for women who want to participate and reclaim their bodies in this way and push back with an alternative to add to the collective unconscious, where all women are glorified, not just those deemed worthy due to their youth, size, and conventional beauty.
Your work includes individual framed pieces, furniture, and full room installations, as you have created for the Wassaic project. When you make individual works, are you also thinking about them in the setting of a larger installation?
While my work began as individual pieces, I’m beginning to think more about how my pieces can work together as installations or as an experience. As part of my process, I go on research pilgrimages, immersing myself in museums and palaces. I question who writes history and how our preserved spaces reveal what we deem worthy of remembering. Where has our history been revised, and how can we re-revise our present to correct for the skew? With the installation work, I’m trying to convey the complexity of how the period rooms that I am referencing feel. It’s a mix of awe at the beauty and craftsmanship, but also discomfort because until recently these spaces and artworks were closed off to most. And even now that they are available to the public there are still so many remnants of their exclusivity. What could it feel like if they, and their grandeur, were inclusive? By visually employing a Baroque extravagance with Kitsch undertones, I want to democratize these opulent, elitist, and once inaccessible spaces.
Your process for creating the digital collages is fascinating: you photograph women in your studio and then combine the images into Old Master paintings that you have photographed in museums. You then incorporate the collaged art works into elaborate period frames and furniture creating the initial impression that these are museum works, especially when they are seen together in a museum-like installation. How did you arrive at this concept and process?
My process began as an exploration of how I could make my objective, which is the glorification of women, readily apparent. Museums are where we place our most revered artwork, but as we know, they are full of nudes of women created by men, so I also wanted to call attention to and respond to that history. The first part of my process is about agency. I photograph women in studio, allowing them complete autonomy. I then photograph paintings in museums and weave together their elements to create an idyllic setting for my subject. I place ads for models — open to anyone female-identifying — on Craigslist. Many of the women share their reasons for participating and I incorporate their narratives, layering modern experiences in with ancient myths and archetypes. I shuffle the symbolic language of the paintings to give my subjects power and agency through their heroic and often revisionist acts. For example, in my Wassaic Project installation, Leda adds clarity to her ever-ambiguously portrayed tale as she reclaims her power of consent and creates a swan-repellant force field. Because the paintings form the basis of our visual lexicon, I juxtapose those idealizations with the credibility inherent in photography. My found materials speak to the elevation and visibility of domestic/women's spaces, as vanity mirrors, fire screens, and furniture become frames. I’m interested in layering time both physically by collaging women into old master paintings, and also metaphorically as a reference to it’s passing and progress, or lack there-of. Through the expanse of Western art history, from the 17th century artist, Artemisia Gentileschi to the contemporary performance artist, Emma Sulkowicz, we see visual representations of women denied justice and men not held accountable — where the artists’ only recourse is catharsis through art. Referencing this history, my process explores themes of reclamation and regeneration, as I hope to provide a view of what justice could look like.
Some of your work references religion and spirituality, such as those images based on paintings of religious subject matter or your prayer kneeler. How does spirituality factor into your work?
I went to a Jewish elementary school and then an Episcopal high school so religion, theology and ritual were a part of my every day life growing up. I ended up in a place where I knew a lot about Western religion but didn’t feel a real connection; it was almost like I knew too much. There are parts of those religious texts, that despite their lovelier parts, I just can’t make peace with. It’s like watching a classic film and not really being able to enter fully or enjoy it because the misogyny is so distracting. I was an Art History major in college and seeing religious iconography through the lens of painting made it feel so much more alive. And I was drawn to the powerful women depicted from Judith to the Greek goddesses who played active roles in the artwork. I’m also hugely influenced by the work of the feminist artist, Renee Cox, especially Yo Mama’s Last Supper, which both points out her exclusion from Western religion and art history and also functions to directly insert her into the canon. I constantly feel like I’m excavating for women artists and religious leaders, because they’ve not been celebrated and preserved enough. But, despite my inability to connect to organized religion, I’ve always felt very spiritual in a personal way and a close connection to some divine power. Around the time that I started this series, I was reading a book called Witches: Hunted, Appropriated, Empowered, Queered, where the author explores why women and LGBTQ people started reviving witchcraft in the 70s in the context of activism, as a way of joining spirituality and politics and also in response to feeling excluded from patriarchal Western religion and to create a more feminist, anti-capitalist, goddess centered faith, which really spoke to me. Since then I’ve been exploring rituals used by modern-day witches and studying forms of divination through tarot and astrology as ways to channel the energies of the archetypes I’m working with into my work. Similar to the themes of inclusivity that I’m referencing in the period rooms, I’m exploring those in regards to religious philosophies that I always felt on the periphery of and it’s a way of carving out space for others that feel that way too and adding new empowering imagery of women to the canon. Overall, the symbolism in my work addresses religious art in the context of a canon of art history that expunges women and a religious history that subjugates them. By bringing these realms into the public sphere and shining light on the erasure of powerful women, I hope to contribute to a more just perception of art, spirituality, and history.
Photo by Jeff Barnett-Winsby