Even healthy relationships can be messy—the ones we form with others and those we have with ourselves. The work of Toronto-based Elly Smallwood draws the viewer into a world where the human body and uninhibited sexuality are only the entryway. Smallwood pulls out the threads that make us human, the myths, the deepest memories of moments in our lives, and displays them in their full messiness.
Her large-scale oil paintings capture the human body, oftentimes aggressively: some of the figures have no face, while the rest of their bodies appear slashed through with deep wounds. In other pieces, their skeletal features show through. Smallwood's gestural style—paired with a drippy, active composition—gives each piece an ecstatic energy.
Smallwood primarily works with oil, a medium she remembers loving at a young age.
"I was always making things as a child, switching from obsession to obsession every month, so my parents got me a childrens oil set when I was maybe eight; that was the first time I think I ever really painted," writes Smallwood in an email to Creators. "I painted dolphins and was incredibly proud of them. Interestingly, I didn't go back to oils until after painting with acrylics for years, but now they are primarily what I use."
Recently, she started creating pieces that imbue florals throughout the human body. The flowers look almost like tattoos on the figure; their bright colors leap out against the mostly gray, white and black background. While the patterns are pleasing to the eye, something seems to lurk beneath—exactly something Smallwood intends.
"Florals have such a long and complicated history intertwined with femininity and the role of women in society and so they've always held a fascination for me," she writes. "I originally began working with them in university, painting on floral bedsheets and incorporating their patterns into backgrounds. Recently I've been painting the pattern as a part of the flesh itself, separate and foreign but still conforming to the curves and shadows of the body."
Through her recent work, Smallwood wants to focus on this "delicacy superimposed over the aggressive and larger-than-life female bodies" to create pieces that are "both jarring and exciting."
While many of these floral pieces leave the figure with few identifying features, other pieces by Smallwood show very distinct faces. Because of the scale in which Smallwood works—some of her pieces are a little over four feet tall—their gazes seem even more arresting. She recently shared a photo showing her hand on top of a piece for scale. It's a section of a painting that shows just the eye, part of the nose and the cheekbone. Even in this small part of the overall composition, it's clear how important the gesture is to Smallwood in bringing each figure to life.
These days, the artist is working on even larger pieces, like a 10' x 12' portrait of herself and another woman in bed. It's these "very intimate and private moments" that fuel her work. In capturing "people at their most vulnerable and raw," Smallwood says, she creates pieces that are both aesthetically and emotionally layered. In each piece, the viewer might see someone that seems familiar—or a state of mind that feels like déjà vu, like those private moments we've kept to ourselves.
To find out more about the artist, visit her on Instagram.