Thursday, 6 September 2012

Art: Hysteria and Doughnuts: The Art of Emma Melton

From a zombie-like face gorging on a doughnut to a melted beast made beautiful through make-up. Leeds-based painter Emma Melton’s work deals with the issues of female representation in the mass-media in a way which is both intellectually informed and visually striking.

Emma Melton’s work deals with issues relating to women’s self-perception such as compulsive eating, anorexia and body dimorphic disorder. She draws attention to the way in which beauty rituals and food consumption are related to the way women are perceived: “The way in which women have historically been represented in art as emotionless objects for the male gaze is something that I try and challenge. By using the image of the hysterical woman, I’m trying to show that women are not just objects to look at, the emotion on display I see as a source of strength and empowerment. I want to challenge the traditional images of the idealised female nude and show her as a real woman with real experiences and therefore aim to remove her from the male gaze.”

Meeting in her studio on a cold November afternoon, I bore witness to some incredible paintings that were eerily disturbing. Drawing reference from a theoretical understanding of ‘hysteria’ and from the imagery of horror films and fashion magazines, Emma Melton’s work would perhaps be the result if Francis Bacon were to have drawn his imagery from a diet of Cosmo’ and Romero. “I like to think about way the in which the mass-media effects people. I’ve seen a lot of horror films that have inspired my work; I love zombie films and films like The Exorcist. The girl in The Exorcist is quite hysterical.”

One painting I am particularly drawn to is reminiscent of Two-face from the Batman comics, with one side of the face portraying a pretty blonde woman applying make-up, while the other side represents a horrific and deformed face which looks as if it has been melted and burnt. In opposition to Two-face, whose injuries were caused by having his face splashed with chemicals by criminals , turning him insane and into a criminal himself – Emma’s painting covers up the deformities with chemicals to address the perceived insanity of not wearing make-up. She explains: “it is about how women are considered deformed and disgusting until they’ve been made into what they should be. Before you put your make-up and clothes on, you’re a monster.”

Hysteria is a key theme of Emma Melton’s work. Drawing inspiration from 19th Century photographs of women in various states of ‘hysteria’, she asks probing questions of herself and the experience of women in general: “I use the image of hysteria to convey my feelings. The deception of the ‘hysterical woman’ comes from the 19th century photographs Dr. Charcoat took of his patients who displayed symptoms such as ‘flirtatiousness,’ ‘deceitfulness,’ ‘exaggerated gestures ‘unseemly displays of emotion,’ ‘excessive wants or dislikes,’ ‘overt sexual behaviour’ or ‘the ostentatious refusal of sex.’ It has been questioned by 20th century feminists whether ‘hysteria’ is a positive or negative reaction to oppressive social realities.”

Top: Emma Melton, Pretty Mad 1 (2008)
Centre: Emma Melton, Pretty Mad 2 (2008)
Bottom: Emma Melton, Untitled (2008)

This article was originally printed in Art Fist magazine issue 4, November 2008. (Visit

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