You don’t need lipstick to shovel shit. Just ask Emily Burns. For a small-town girl raised on farms in Pennsylvania and Virginia, a good day’s work was cashed in calloused palms and sweat-dewed brows. It required grueling labor, physical fortitude, and, yes, sometimes it meant shoveling mounds of shit. All for six bucks an hour.
Then one day a friend of Burns offered to get her a job as a bartender.
“I was a little bit of a dork, to be honest,” she tells me on a phone call from her home in New York. From a young age, she voraciously consumed books on art, especially if they involved her favorite painter, Michelangelo. Her tendency to metabolize details resulted in a natural ability to produce illustrations of uncanny realism. She could draw a horse that looked just like a horse or the most realistic banana you’ve ever seen. It was the best validation she ever received and it compelled her to push her craft even further. The boys would eventually take notice as she grew into her figure, but whether sketching in the studio or toiling in the stables Burns was celebrated above all else for her hard-won skill.
She took pride in that. “I don’t think that fitting into the ‘standard of beauty’ was something I thought much about, or something that I fit into now. I was always more concerned with what I was doing, making, or thinking about than what I looked like, until I realized that I could achieve certain things by looking a certain way.”
A touch of mascara and a push-up bra later and it didn’t matter that she knew all about human anatomy, nor did her retention of perspective, color theory, or composition. Such qualities don’t dispose a man to start drinking and keep drinking. What mattered was the pretty persuasion of her derriere, the carnal promise offered by her décolletage. These once-uncapatalized assets suddenly became valuable commodities in the wolvesden of her workplace, profiting to the tune of $250 a night.
At the time, Burns found herself in a wrestling match over her newfound allure. “I believe that I’m an intelligent person,” she says, “I was in college and going to get my bachelor’s degree. But I found myself in a position- as many young girls do- where it’s either make six bucks an hour and try to pay your rent or go and get a job where you’re making $250 on a Friday night, albeit with a bunch of guys ogling you and wearing tight little outfits. It’s a decision that can be difficult to make.”
When I speak with Burns it has been years since she left bartending. It’s not a period she regrets, but she has difficulty working jobs, today, where she’s valued more for her cup size than her talent. “Women have this advantage, because they can always dress up and bat their eyes or take off their clothes and they can get ahead. But for me- I’m very uncomfortable with that being the case, because if someone came to me and said, ‘Emily, you’re such a talented painter, can you do a nude photo shoot?’ my reaction would be ‘No thank you. My talent is my work.’”
Beauty is a curious thing. We encourage its being while denying it its nature. We exalt its splendor, even deify it. We feel threatened by its power and at times regard it with resentment. We constantly attempt to define it, strive to tame it, strain to manufacture it.
For the past six years, Burns has been exploring and interpreting these contradictions through her art. It began with her so-named “Food Girl” series, a body of work revolving around centerfold beauties slovenly smearing their naked bodies with cakes and sweets. They were intended to be “perverse without being perverse.” She elaborates: “Those paintings, to me, are just this crazy expression of sensuality in all of its different positive and negative forms. They’re very beautiful but they’re also seriously ugly.” Indeed, despite the airbrushed immaculateness of her subjects the pieces are hardly what most would call enticing.
More recently, her lush oil compositions have been filled with ingénues of a different sort. Recalling the vintage-style va va voom of iconic ‘50s pinup artists such as Alberto Vargas and Earl Moran, they feature galleries of seductive women spread into suggestive poses. With their hourglass figures and skimpy outfits, they might be titillating- were their heads not replaced with that of deer or elk. Think Bambi as Bardot. The striking “Deer Girl” series has formed the thesis of her postgraduate work and proven a smashing success with audiences and critics. “I’ve used a very standardized, American view of what is beautiful, “she explains, “by removing the identity of the model, I want to try to reiterate the lack of individuality perpetuated by the type of beauty that our culture has come to celebrate.”
The “Deer Girl” paintings explore the fine line between the inherent power of womanhood and the insecurity that festers while pursuing a physical ideal. For Burns, they are less about making a statement than posing questions: What is it like to be born into the societal definition of beauty? Who or what are the catalysts in these people’s lives that cultivate their opinions about their identity?
It presents a fascinating Rorschach test for observers. Are the figures she depicts self-possessed sexual animals or helpless prey for the ravenous male gaze? “One of the reasons that I bring the wildlife theme into my work is because I’m interested in the dialogue between nature and our sexuality. I think our inner feelings and natural sexual desires are so often manipulated by forces outside of ourselves, which in turn creates so much anxiety and uncertainty with regard to those feelings, that we lose track of what we actually might want or feel.”
Of course, starting a conversation doesn’t mean one can steer the dialogue: “I think the issues that I bring up are extremely important, but they’re difficult issues and I think a lot of people don’t agree with the things that I’m bringing up. A lot of people look at what I’m painting and just see pretty girls and that frustrates me to a point because I feel like my work is extremely complex. But at the same time it’s an interesting social experiment, gauging people’s reactions and interpretations.”
Such passionate reactions come as no surprise to me. In the process of excavating meaning from Burns’ work, we eventually begin to exhume details from my own experiences. She’ll do that to you.
A couple of weeks prior to our interview, a close friend of mine had disrobed for a risqué photoshoot, and although I haven’t seen a single shot from it I have already formed strong opinions about the idea. I could not tell my friend, then, what I share with Burns in the moment, how disappointed I was in her for exploiting her appearance so shamelessly in lieu of promoting her other gifts. I wonder aloud why she didn’t seek attention through her writing, or painting, or musicianship. I wonder why she chose to expose herself so frankly when I felt sure of the unnourishing effect it would have on her ego and sense of self-worth.
It’s a sentiment Burns can understand: “Women often feel this pressure to be not only amazing at what they do, but to be sexy while they do it. Olympic athletes, artists, singers, graphic designers, racecar drivers- you name it- if you’re a girl it helps tremendously to be ‘hot’ as well as talented and hard-working. I don’t believe that you have to take your clothes off and comply with an insanely narrow view of what ‘sexy’ is in order to feel beautiful or accepted. It’s such a ridiculous double-standard.”
This is where the line becomes nebulous. Does my friend not have a right to own her sexuality? Shouldn’t women be allowed to be sexy? Peeling back the membranes surrounding the issue I make a confession about my own insecurities: “It’s hard to own up and admit this as a male,” I say tentatively, “but I have some pretty severe body image issues, myself.”
In another life I was a scrawny social piñata, my baggy clothes supplying ill misdirection from my cadaverous frame. At age seventeen, I decided I had endured enough cracks about my appearance and proceeded to do something about it. By my nineteenth birthday, I had emerged from my chrysalis state thickened from a rigorous regimen of push-ups and protein shakes. Only then did wandering eyes find port on my figure.
“I put a lot of value on my body,” I tell her, “I thought, ‘Oh, people are only finally being nice to me after I’ve crafted and curated my being.’”
“Being sensitive and being intellectual and being shy and being gentle and sweet, all of these things- most women really like these characteristics,” she responds, “but I feel like the world that we live in now has made different role models than the people we should be to become important and I just find it really sad.”
Burns takes pains to clarify that her paintings are not intended as anti-male diatribes. They are simply projections of her own perspective as an objectified woman, along with the experiences of her friends, many of whom serve as the models for her work. Society betrays both sexes. It is the complexity of gender politics that inspired the title of her latest show, “Vague.”
“I feel for men, too, you know? I feel like it’s really difficult to be a man in today’s world and all the things you’re expected to do and all the things that men are expected to be.”
I think about those expectation hours after I hit “stop” on my recorder. Burns and I had spoken for nearly an hour-and-a-half, our conversation pinballing from ruminations on our own desires, relationships, and frailties to talks of old studies on gender psychology. So many layers to the issue. Truth be told, we could have gone on all day.
I enter my gym later that day and board the treadmill. My back muscles coil and my chest mists with perspiration as my shoes pound the track below me. My eyes lock forward and my breathe heaves rhythmically as I traverse a road with no end. A body in perpetual motion.
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