Elsa Rouy: In conversation with the artist championing the grotesque

London-based Rouy delves into invasive and psychological explorations of the body

With her penchant for the acrylic absurd, Elsa Rouy’s work depicts a raw exposure of femininity. The 24-year-old, through her practice, places emphasis on the individuality of the human experience, where the true “mystery is reflective of real suffering as we are never going to fully experience how another person feels,” says Rouy. “I want the paintings to be a space where the viewer can relate and find compassion. I want the viewer to question their reaction more than I want them to feel anything specific.”

Courtesy of the Elsa Rouy, GNYP Gallery and Guts Gallery

Including uncensored depictions of distorted, naked bodies – emphasised by bold red strokes, iridescent acrylic skin and “the breaking up of the monotony of a brush mark” through sensations of charcoal – Rouy leaves no corner of the human anatomy unpainted.

She explores “figures in distress”, prodding viewers to seek why the subjects of her work are suffering. Challenging the unspoken amongst societal dismay, her work touches upon sexual realities and injustices experienced by all genders.

During her previous studies at Camberwell College of Art, where she graduated with a BA in fine art in 2021, Rouy caught the eye of GUTS Gallery, led by Ellie Pennick. The Hackney-based gallery is renowned for challenging traditional art business models, which often hinder opportunities for underrepresented artists through various factors such as nepotism.

Since her discovery, she’s been on a meteoric rise. Over the past four years, Rouy has held three solo exhibitions at GUTS in Hackney Downs and recently staged her ‘Ephialtes’ exhibition at GNYP in Antwerp which closed in March 2024.

Courtesy of the Elsa Rouy, GNYP Gallery and Guts Gallery

From visual figurative pieces to captivating sculpture work, Rouy’s creativity seems to encounter no limit. Her current favourite work is ‘Self/Realisation’ (2024), as seen above. “It feels like me. It’s funny and it’s fast, it’s manic and uncomfortable. It’s a girly, strong piece that doesn’t relent.”

Delicate gradients and saturated hues, intensified by bold touches of ink, characterise the obscurity of Elsa Rouy’s work. “It’s like I’m always trying to be understood but can only tell people through riddles,” she says.

Throughout her work, physical boundaries appear to dissipate: bodies rupture and crack, layers of skin seep and meld together and leaking bodily fluids drip and pool amongst one another. A brilliant example of such being her piece ‘A face when loved’ (2023), a faceless naked woman bleeding from the her stomach outwards in a grotesque depiction. Through a balletic interplay, Rouy’s figures take on an ethereal appearance, resembling figments of otherness and simultaneously “blending the psychological experience and the bodily experience to highlight their codependency,” she says.

Courtesy of the Elsa Rouy, GNYP Gallery and Guts Gallery

Often rendered in red or pink hues, synonymous with feelings of sensuality or pain, her work is comparable in technique and appearance with greats of the figurative arts such as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. Ultimately, Rouy captures the burdens of womanhood and emphasises the political nature of the body as an eternal consequence. In her own words: “as much as the figures suffer, it’s a liberation – a place to put the suffering and to look at it objectively and understand it.”

Rouy’s raw and visceral work challenges traditional representations of gender and sensuality, often incorporating elements of surrealism and deformity. Her work beckons viewers to ponder the intricate tapestry of human existence, delving into themes of transformation, and fluidity.

Rouy’s work is currently on display at GUTS Gallery’s group exhibition ‘Softer, Softest’, open until May 21 at Unit 2 Sidings House, 10 Andre Street, Hackney, London, E8 2AA.

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