Reisha Perlmutter wants us to stop thinking about sex. Or not sex exactly, but viewing bodies purely as sex objects — instead of the complex biological vessels they are.
If you want to disconnect the body from sexualization, it may seem counter-intuitive to paint nudes, but Perlmutter’s work is more than mere nudity.
The artist looks beyond all of societal and personal pressures — body image issues, objectification, and even illness — to focus on the objective beauty of each body, stretch marks, scars and all. For Perlmutter’s subjects, the act of posing and having their images painstakingly crafted by an artist can be an incredibly empowering way for women to reclaim ownership of their bodies.
Browsing through her images, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Perlmutter’s work paintings as NSFW photographs, they’re that realistic. But on closer inspection, her paintings take on an almost abstract quality, with Perlmutter’s brush strokes further softening the body, and merging it with the water.
Fresh off her solo show at the Roman Fine Art gallery in East Hampton, we caught up with Perlmutter to discuss her attraction to water, Instagram censorship, and women’s complicated relationship with their bodies.
Why do you only paint women?
I want to explore directly how women perceive their bodies, amidst all the pressures around us to feel or look a certain way that relates to what is “feminine.” I am focusing on painting women because this is what I know, I’m moving through my own journey in perceiving myself, my body, and my being, as a woman.
I want to explore what feeling like a “woman” actually means by breaking down body-related expectations that disassociate us from being empowered.
What draws you to paint water?
What draws me to such a basic element like water is its ability to bring oneself into a deeper awareness of the body. It connects us to feeling and allows us to to have a different relationship with our individual bodies as we are able to move through it and feel as though we are almost floating in space, or are being held, almost womb-like.
Can you describe the process in which your paintings are made? Do you work from photographs?
Yes, I work from photographs. The process of taking the pictures is almost as critical for me as painting them. I need to create some connection with whomever is posing for me. There is always a sense of vulnerability that arises when models are asked to bare themselves without clothing, jewelry or makeup. Documenting this process is really beautiful, and the photographs become a sort of moment or reminder of the human qualities of fear, self consciousness and freedom that I am so fascinated by.
The photographs bring me back to the moment of life where they were taken. This is why I take all of my own source images. It’s imperative that I have an intimate and first hand relationship with the model and thus, the image.
What do you find empowering about your images?
I am deeply affected and fascinated by the way women create boundaries between themselves and their bodies. I think there is a quality in the feeling of being submerged in water that allows us to break down these boundaries, and reconnect to the feeling of being within our bodies, and really feeling and acknowledging that.
There is this sense that judgment, being judged, disappears when a body is surrounded by water. That is where the sense of “empowerment” comes from for me.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by women’s “boundaries between themselves and their bodies”?
I want to explore the way women feel in their bodies, in their own skin. There are tendencies to disassociate ourselves from our bodies or body parts. This can come from experiences with sickness, and preconceived ideas of femininity through societal norms.
I have photographed and worked with many women. The experience of meeting these women, and asking them to make themselves vulnerable to me by removing everything except for themselves has proven to be a deeply engaging process.
Stretch mark, freckles, mastectomy scars, wrinkles — they all become part of the story that makes a body a body, and that becomes beautiful. This sense of “beauty” for which I am searching is not based in the idea of association of traditional prescribed femininity. Instead, I am looking for a beauty within the female life force; the bones, capillaries, and tissues that make up our body, and give us strength. Beauty is in turn extracted from the semblance of life force, and all the aspects that it entails.
I want to present imagery that connects women to their bodies, where this sense of disconnect is somehow lost in a moment or image, and the sensation of entirety and physicality is present in the painting.
You have 163,000 followers on Instagram, but your work is against the app’s image guidelines, has this caused you trouble before?
Instagram’s treatment of my work has been interesting, in actuality, my work is well within Instagram’s guidelines for nudity, as it is painting. They have recently become better about not deleting my content, but I think previously, they didn’t take the time to decipher between paintings and photography, and that is why they deleted it.
I know some of your paintings are self-portraits, but many of your subjects also look similar to you, was that intentional? Do you seek out a certain type of woman to paint?
I have painted myself on several occasions, I am the most available model I know, however I’ve never heard that my subjects look like me. I actually aim for the opposite, I definitely aim for varied types of women, from their skin color to age, to body type, welcoming bodies that have experienced hardship, and definitely those that are not seen spread across advertisements and in the media. But it is possible that from a psychological standpoint, I unintentionally paint myself a little bit in other women’s portraits.
Next up, here’s what the reaction to “Thicc” Rihanna tells us about body shaming in 2017.
- Photography: Courtesy of Alexandra Fanning Communications