Jess Cochrane's paintings take a comical stab at 17th-century portraiture and its damning symbolism

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

There are plenty of mixed messages in Jess Cochrane's works. And that's deliberately so. Her paintings force us to ignore societal expectations, beauty norms and what we've been trained to see – instead, seeing her female characters as complex individuals without any labels.

It's this approach that has become a trademark of Cochrane's style. There's humour, definitely. A little cheekiness, too. She puts a microscope on art history, design and advertising, and the symbols often used in 17th-century portraiture. What exactly, for example, is a strawberry hoping to depict? And why are her subjects naked? Is that for our pleasure or hers? Is her gaze lustful or indifferent? Ultimately, Cochrane wants us to consider whether a woman's sexuality is purely for the viewer to behold.

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

In her latest body of work, A Woman By Any Other Name, we see various portraits depicting women posing to the camera, adorned with the fruits and flora traditionally seen in Renaissance portraiture. Confronting in both size and context, her paintings seem to mock traditional symbols and motifs, reclaiming autonomy for the women she features. They are playful, too. With stuck-out tongues, perhaps attacking the conservatism of classical art history, and turned backs highlighting how women have been viewed negatively for hundreds of years.

Whether deemed whore, saint or sinner or considered pure or tarnished, there are many labels placed on women in classical portraiture. Her portraits only highlight how problematic these labels are in a modern context. For instance, one model leans, languid, with an apple – something that traditionally bore the message of sexual desire or sin – placed in her porcelain hand. On the one hand, she is enticing and ripe, eroticised, almost drawing us in like Eve with forbidden fruit. However, the narrative isn't so straightforward as her gaze is steely, perhaps rejecting our unwanted advances.

Jess Cochrane in her studio

Jess Cochrane in her studio

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

From the series, A Woman By Any Other Name © Jess Cochrane

Elsewhere, we see a woman wearing a necklace made entirely of strawberries – a fruit that apparently denotes fertility. It's all quite comical when Cochrane adds this contemporary slant.

The symbolism might have its meaning, buried in 17th-century thinking, but the models' body language tells another story entirely. It's obviously something Cochrane herself feels strongly about, as her mark-making is powerful, even violent on canvas. It's a reaction that runs deep. Raw and visceral, her paintings go against the very symbols that seek to condemn women. She leaves us with the question: how do these paintings make us feel when we understand the absurdity of our past and sadly, the outdated and subversive feminine beauty that still exists today.

A Woman By Any Other Name by Jess Cochrane runs from 4 June until 10 July 2021 at Rhodes Contemporary Art on New Compton Street, London. To find out more about the artist, visit jesscochrane.com.

Jess Cochrane in her studio

Jess Cochrane in her studio