You are here

Living large, going public with her woes, selling art

Above: Ashley Longshore in her New Orleans gallery. Her glittery, bawdy feminist artwork gets 'likes' on Instagram and love at the uppity Bergdorf Goodman store.

Above: The outside of studio hints at her personality.

New Orleans

ARTIST Ashley Longshore is not one to fret. Her remedy for worry can be summed up in a word. "Action," she said. "Action is my cure for everything."

On this late winter day, she rose at 5.30 am. "Mornings, as soon as my eyes open, I grab my phone, and on my way to the bathroom I instantly start e-mailing," she said. "Then I pee, put on my Spanx, yank on my pearls, pop on some sunglasses, and it's time to get rolling."

She works 16-hour days, and doesn't roll so much as churn; her copious output all but assaults visitors to her storefront gallery on funky Magazine Street.

Market voices on:

Greeting me was a larger-than-life portrait of model Kate Moss cloaked in a houndstooth patterned nun's habit; a throw pillow stamped with the formidable visage of Anna Wintour; and a portrait of Jesus wearing a T-shirt and flanked by a pair of teddy bears. There was also a self-portrait of Ms Longshore tricked out as a pleasingly chubby Wonder Woman.

Those colourful sculptures, paved with crystal and glitter, seem to wink from the walls or spring from the floor, a stretch of poured concrete slicked with garage paint in a naughty shade of pink.

She said of the colour: "It makes you feel happy the minute you walk in. Besides, I like the stimulation."

Indeed, she thrives on it. Working outside the corridors of the mainstream art world, she has become an avatar of pop feminism to thousands of followers, who view and buy her work on her proudly profane Instagram feed, on her website and, most recently, in the rarefied precincts of Bergdorf Goodman in New York.

The 46-year-old, introducing her installation there in January, lured a crowd of mostly young women scrambling for a chance to view the art and the artist up close. They scarcely registered the presence of actress Blake Lively, designer Christian Siriano and celebrity stylists including June Ambrose and Jenke Ahmed Tailly, who count Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian as clients. The crowd single-mindedly snaked toward Ms Longshore, who stood at the rear of the room dispensing hugs.

Lisa Burwell, the editor of Vie, a West Coast style and culture magazine aimed at 25- to 35-year-olds, called the artist "a pied piper of hope and fun", and the world "just doesn't have enough of that".

Ten days later, back in her studio and gallery, Ms Longshore grinned. "Boy, did I freaking bring it," she said. Her ardour, she knows, is infectious. "My greatest legacy is not my painting but sharing with them that feeling of endless possibility every day." She recently published a book, You Don't Look Fat, You Look Crazy, a combination of self-help and memoir dense with her bawdy illustrations and briny aphorisms.

"Just woman up," she urges, interjecting curse words. "Put on your big-girl panties and deal with it." Or, more philosophically: "No one should be devalued because of their genitalia."

A professed mega-consumer, she dotes on her Birkin bags, which, to those who can afford her work, may be part of her allure. "She is about living the good life, about high style," said Alan Bamberger, a San Francisco art consultant. "She says it's OK to be lavish, to own expensive things. She doesn't apologise."

On this afternoon she sold five or six canvases, she said, adding that this was a typical haul, taking in a total of US$65,000. Her patrons are an odd assortment of actors, well-heeled matrons, hedge-fund managers and modest believers in her gospel.

"This is America," she likes to preach. "Here, if you're willing to work hard enough, you can look at yourself every morning, pinch your nipples and smile, and say 'I can go out and do anything I need to do'."

Often bearing cartoon-like images of accomplished, mythologised females - Wintour, Frida Kahlo and Audrey Hepburn among them - her canvases are intended as testaments to female empowerment.

She has deliberately bypassed the gallery circuit. "I'm not just an artist, I'm an entrepreneur," she said. "I want to represent myself. I want to keep 100 per cent of my profit margin." At Bergdorf, she said, "I'm curating them, and they're curating me".

Conventional dealers may well look askance at her work, some dismissing it as tasteless or garish. "It is art that certainly could polarise," Mr Bamberger acknowledged. But these days, he said, "when you buy a work of art, you buy into the person, the whole package, and Instagram is where the whole package plays out". It doesn't hurt, either, that this artist is relentlessly upbeat, he said.

It wasn't always so. In Montgomery, Alabama, where she grew up, she was the weird kid who got picked on for her big voice and loud personality. "It would've been easier," she writes in her memoir, "to dress pretty, fawn over those big-eared boys and learn my dance steps, but I couldn't do it," she wrote of the cotillion that could have been.

She eventually decamped for Montana, where she taught herself to paint, and later New Orleans, a city she loves for its rawness. She peddled her earliest paintings - masturbating couples and such ribald subjects to local galleries, and was mostly met with rejection.

At night, she sobbed, "crying snot bubbles", she said. "I was let down by just being disrespected." Her tendency to go public with her triumphs and travails has proved attractive. "People love all that blood, sweat and tears," she said.

Ms Longshore is well ahead of the social media game. She exposes not just her art but her own perceived flaws: runaway carb cravings, a tendency to hoard and an unyielding competitive drive.

She calls herself "ambitcheous", and says: "I'm brave enough to be who I am in a society where there's a lot of pressure to be perfect," she said. NYTIMES