Latex aka rubber isn’t something you’d generally associate with fine art, but British artist Michelle Mildenhall has taken the tactile material and transformed it into stunning portraits of the offbeat and famous. A mischievous mix of light and dark, Mildenhall’s work perfectly refects her personality. Little wonder then that she’s known internationally as the ‘latex queen of the art scene.’
Michelle was gracious enough to answer my questions about herself and her love of latex over a very traditional English cream tea…
Ms Mildenhall, where were you raised, and what is your artistic background?
MM: I come from a tiny village in Wiltshire [England], it was a beautiful place to grow up, we had a huge garden that you could run riot in. I use to draw flowers from the garden from a very early age. In fact I’ve been an artist for as long as I can remember, always painting things and drawing. I took A-level art [the English equivalent of High School] in order to go on to study an art foundation course, spending a whole year creating work and finding out where my strengths lie, and I ended up going to university to study a degree in Textiles.
What inspires and influences you?
MM: I’m a little magpie when it comes to inspiration, it is absolutely everywhere. My art is completely driven by my inquisitive and curious mind. I love to observe people in the street, what they’re wearing, color combinations and textures. Feelings inspire me too, excitement, wonderment and passion – anything that awakens your senses. I also get inspiration from the people around me. I love to look at erotic art, books, photographs, listen to music, watch performers, meet colorful characters. When I create my work I love how the piece makes me feel, how it excites me. I hope to be able to give the viewer the same sensation.
What kind of art were you doing prior to your latex portraits?
MM: After leaving college, I was a freelance commercial designer, working for lots of different companies.
Why did you make the transition to creating latex portraits?
MM: After being a commercial artist for over 10 years I thought to myself, it’s about time you started pleasing yourself rather than trying to please everyone else. It became so mundane working for all these companies, regurgitating ideas and never pushing myself.
What is it about latex that appeals to you?
MM: I love wearing latex clothing, the first time I slipped into it I felt empowered and sexy. As an artist new experiences are essential to my creativity and I think my first encounter with latex had a profound effect on me. I love the way it makes me look and feel. I still get that tingle of excitement when I open my dressing up box full of latex!
Briefly explain your technique – without giving away trade secrets of course.
MM: I could tell you but I’d have to kill you! Let’s just say it’s taken me over 10 years to get my pieces coming out as pristine as they do. I started off making my own clothing, purely for fun, then went into making latex hats which I used to sell, but it was my art that totally engrossed me, there was something inside telling me I had to do this. The idea came to me in a flash of inspiration while I was working on a latex outfit for myself, and since that moment I haven’t looked back.
How do you choose your subjects?
MM: I have two takes on this. I look for an image that really speaks to me, one that has a lot of depth in the eyes, which could translate well. It’s all about what the subject is feeling, I want to create something powerful that really draws the viewer’s attention. But I also like to play with things and do art that is unexpected, adding a little humor in there, as I did in my most successful creations to date – the QE1 and QE2 portraits. They depict the Queen [of England, Elizabeth II] sporting two subversive looks: the first sees her in full latex hood with collar and crown; the second in just the collar and crown. Is this absurd? Maybe… but hey, who knows what goes on behind closed doors.
What do you hope viewers get from your work?
MM: I want to seduce the viewer into a world of disconcerting beauty by using popular but somewhat taboo themes of sexuality, fetishism and subversion. Each piece becomes defined and fetishized via its latex conceptualization. All my pieces have strong characters, and more often than not there is an erotic/fetishistic element to them, which is less about the physical appearance and more about the subject’s state of mind. I want the viewer to be drawn in.
What is the most unusual latex portrait commission you’ve ever done?
MM: I’ve just created a very unique piece, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin as a transgender woman, elegantly wearing a Russian coat of arms tiara with the universal symbol for human rights incorporated into it. Around his neck a pendant sits beautifully. It is not obvious at first glance, but there is a refined political satire to the piece. Putin looks powerful, yet strangely beautiful and demure at the same time.
What do you regard as being your greatest achievement?
MM: Doing what I love every day. I feel so privileged to be in this position and never take it for granted. Doing what I love empowers me, and the positive feedback is like nothing you ever get when working for other people. I had no idea I could get this kind of fulfillment from following my own path, but it’s down to doing something I love and being 100 percent committed to it. Take it from me: no matter what your vocation, if you believe in what you do, you will succeed. I’m also very proud to have shown my work next to some amazing British artists, such as Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst and Banksy.
Describe yourself as both a person and an artist.
MM: I would say I have a sunny disposition, that I’m a bit of a joker, but very hard working. I try to look at things in a different light, with a kind of openness, an almost childlike view of things. I don’t get too bogged down trying to be an artist. I just try to see the amazement of life.
Are you part of a latex/fetish scene?
MM: I’ve been wearing latex and going to fetish clubs for about 13 years now. I love getting rubbered up for the evening and meeting amazing people. I’ve fetish partied all over the world, London, Berlin and San Francisco to name a few, but no one does it quite like the English. The London-based Torture Garden was the first fetish club I ever visited and I loved it – in fact I still love it.
You can see more of Michelle Mildenhall’s stunning art and keep up to date with her activities at www.michellemildenhall.co.uk as well as www.instagram.com/michellemildenhall www.facebook.com/latexartwork and www.twitter.com/MissMildenhall
About the author:
UK-based artist Billy Chainsaw specializes in mixed-media pop art and has exhibited in numerous galleries in such far-flung locations as London and Los Angeles. Learn more about his work at www.koolkrakenincorporated.com