These days, everyone uses Instagram. But for neon artist Romily Alice, the internet isn’t just a place for sharing no-makeup selfies. With her neon-lit nudes, Alice examines female expression in the digital age and its complicated relationship with male engagement. Her realistic representations of the female shape challenge society’s obsession with image and perfection, while reinterpreting the age-old tradition of white men dictating femininity through oppressive standards of beauty. Her latest series, Always Turned On, reimagines porn imagery through delicate lights, flipping the switch on male-dominated perceptions of the female body, while Neon Portraits uses donated selfies to celebrate womanhood in all its forms. Through her art, Alice combines the intimacy of an internet post with the power of subversive feminist imagery to create work that’s as radical as it is relevant. And in the age of Trump, I can’t think of anything more important.
BULLETT called the artist to talk neon, nudes and navigating the digital sphere.
‘Neon Portrait #6’
Tell me about your work.
I work mainly with neon, but my work is conceptual. So I think a lot about gender and women’s sexual agency, and this online/offline life that is now an inescapable part of being alive.
I’ve always just loved it. I grew up in London, and obviously Soho is a big neon destination—I remember always being attracted to it as a light form. Then, about three years ago, I did a one-day course and as soon as I did, I just knew, this is the material for me. I really enjoy the process, and conceptually, because I’m interested in gender and sex—neon has cultural associations that lend themselves really well to those topics.
How do you explore those themes through your work?
I recently did a series called Always Turned On, in tandem with a bunch of research I was doing about women in online spaces. It’s such a complex and fascinating situation that we’re learning to navigate, and it’s so multifaceted that I just wanted to make work that asked questions—how do we exist both online and off? What other conversations are we having about women’s sexual agency? And equally, what conversations are we not having that we need to be? The most important thing to me, is putting something in a room that makes people go, ‘I wonder what this thing is about, and I wonder what I think about that.’
What were you trying to do with Always Turned On?
All of the images that went into that body of work were found images from Google, or stills from pornography. I very much wanted to take images of women’s bodies that were being sexualized in the public domain. So they’re all solo—there’s no other people, just one woman in each piece. Up until then, I’d mostly done work with donated images. So that raises questions about the internet and consent, and what happens to our bodies if we choose to share them—ownership and all of that.
‘Untitled #5’ from ‘Always Turned On’
The internet is such a complicated space, especially when we’re talking about it in relation to feminism and female sexuality. With a platform like Instagram, women have really been able to engage with their own bodies. But it also changes the way other people are able to interact with them.
I feel both of those things. In a lot of my research, I was reading about the early days of the internet and this feminist hope that it would end up being this genderless space where equality would happen by default—that it would provide this never-before-seen opportunity for women to occupy a body-less and genderless space in the world. That hasn’t happened at all—actually, it’s the opposite, and women are even more subjected to all the things they experience offline, online.
Why do you think the internet has become such a popular place for female expression?
It’s really great, if women are feeling like they have the chance to decide how their bodies are perceived. That can be hugely beneficial—to feel like you have a platform to express yourself exactly the way you want to. At the same time, the danger is that it functions as a site that perpetuates all the things that really damage women, in regards to the messages we’re told by society about our bodies.
What role does the internet play in terms of your work?
It’s a weird time with fine art because the image of the work is, in some ways, just as important as the actual work. But I’m into analogue—I like that my pieces exist, and I can actually touch them.
Your work feels so personal—even though it’s not a photograph, the images almost feel like someone’s selfie. How do you choose your subjects?
It’s really important to me that they’re all individual, real women—not imagined women. I did a series called Neon Portraits, where I asked women to donate nude selfies. It was electively anonymous, so people could choose to send me information about who they were, or they could choose not to. It was a really interesting experience doing both projects—one in which I could be in touch with the people if they wanted to be, and talk to them about the project and how it made them feel; then, with Always Turned On, where I decided to take pictures from the internet—something I felt quite conflicted about, but felt like it was important for the work.
What was the goal behind Neon Portraits?
On a really simple level, I was celebrating women’s bodies. So taking this photoshopped, good angle rubbish we see all the time, and asking people to just send me a really straight forward, unposed image, and having that turn into something really beautiful.
‘Neon Portrait #7’
The whole process of reinterpreting someone else’s photo, in a way, also reinterprets the male gaze. But the fact you have so many photos to choose from, says a lot about the frequency with which people are posting online.
We’re so obsessed with this idea of looking and being looked at—there’s no escaping it, and it can definitely feel heightened online. I think people feel a lot more pressure in their online existence than they do offline.
There’s so much pressure to curate the perfect image.
It’s insane when you think about it, because one of the biggest appeals of the internet is that it’s free of physicality—you don’t have to be able-bodied, or look a certain way, or be in a certain location, to take part in the internet. But we’ve actually managed to create a situation where you do still have to conform to all these norms in order to be successful—at least, on the internet.
Your portraits also challenge conventional body standards by depicting different shapes—not just big breasts and small waists.
I’d like to do that more. But one of the things I found really interesting with the donated images, was that a lot of the women who were willing to share their selfies with me—they did conform to stereotypical body types. It makes sense because they’re the people who would feel the most comfortable sending them to me. But it was this amazing catch-22, where the very thing that I was wanting to work against was actually influencing what I received.
Is there a specific reason you stick to nudes?
I’m interested in the history of the nude in a fine art context, and how the female form is just such a male-dominated body of work. So I think part of the reason I’m attracted to it, is because it feels like there’s still so much room for the nude to be looked at from a different perspective—from the female gaze.
View Romily’s work in Heroine: The Future is Pink at Square Gallery London this May.