The paintings and drawings of artist Louise Bonnet present a cornucopia of perverse delights. Boobs like bowling pins and an ass the size of a house, like a R. Crumb fantasy leaping from comics onto a life-size canvas in luscious oil paint. A pneumatic nose that painter Philip Guston would be proud of, on a fleshy woman who hopelessly tries to fit herself into a chair small enough for a dollhouse. A faceless figure in a blonde bob wig desperately grasps at the bed she sits on, hand swelling grotesquely, its gigantism telegraphing intensity of sensation.

Such were the icky and amusing sights that greeted visitors to the Armory Show art fair this past March in New York at the stand set up by art dealer Nino Mier, of Los Angeles and Cologne. Standing as much as six feet high or ten feet wide, Bonnet’s paintings not only lampoon the ways bodies are represented idealised, sexualised, subjected to whatever dishonesty but also give a frank accounting of what it’s like to inhabit a body, particularly one that disgusts and frightens us. ‘I like the way we try to hide the fact that we’re apes,’ she told me by phone.

Louise Bonnett installation view at the Armory Show, 2019 | Image courtesy of the artist and Nino Mier Gallery
Bonnet’s paintings can be at once highly alluring and fairly repellent. At the Armory her largest presentation in New York to date, after solo exhibitions with Mier in Los Angeles and Galerie Max Hetzler in Berlin as well as New York’s Half Gallery I found myself wanting to study the works up close, but also concerned about what my fellow fairgoers might think. One glorious painting shows a woman from thighs up, larger than life size, bent impossibly backward such that her boobs stand vertically, the falsification of the body giving French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, known for anatomical distortion, a run for his money. She inhabits the entire canvas; her butt is as big as a house, her hairless pudenda as large as the bob wig that rests on her shoulders.

Bonnet often leaves voids where faces should be, or covers them over with armour-like coifs. Leaving out the most fundamentally communicative feature of the human form, she makes gesture, posture, and setting communicate affect instead. But even perceptive observers may differ on what they’re putting across. Alexander Nowak, a creative director at New York ad agency Droga5, has Bonnet’s painting Red Bed, in which the gigantic hand clasps the bed, in his office. He watches as colleagues and clients encounter it every day, and for him, one of the work’s triumphs is the varied reactions it elicits, or even the way it leaves people speechless. ‘They can’t say, “This is dark,” or “This is happy,” or “This is comedic,”’ says Nowak. ‘It remains open. It sounds so easy, but it’s very, very impressive to achieve that.’

The Cyclops (2018). Oil on linen, 72 x 120 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Nino Mier Gallery.
Curators have taken notice too; UCLA’s Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) have collected her work, and at the time writing, the Denver Art Museum was in the process of acquiring one. Last year LACMA secured the ten-foot-wide 2018 canvas The Cyclops, in which the titular figure, sporting giant feet and a tiny head, ties on a bikini top. Here, Bonnet’s disinclination to paint eyes is especially comical; the Cyclops’s sole eye is suggested only in a lone wrinkle in its hair.

Bonnet, born in Geneva and living in Los Angeles since 1994, draws on a plethora of inspirations, which she reveals via Instagram to her nearly fifteen thousand followers. Distorted bodies are everywhere, from Christ’s pierced side, grossly poked, in Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas to a video of dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham making faces. There’s a 1480s Jacometto Veneziano portrait of a young man from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, sporting a then-popular ‘do called a ‘zazzera’, and a Gucci model with a haystack mane next to Bonnet’s 2016 painting The Daisy, with a nearly identical coif (‘Gucci knows what good hair looks like’). While she says she tends to keep current art at arm’s length, her kin in figurative painting, a genre very much in the ascendant today, range from masters like Picasso to notorious practitioners like John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage, who emerged in the 1990s, to younger artists like Ebecho Muslimova, Christina Quarles, and Jeffrey Cheung.

Louise Bonnet, The Shower, 2016, Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches (182.9 x 152.4 cm)
Louise Bonnet, The Daisy, 2016, Oil on canvas, 72 x 60 inches (182.9 x 152.4 cm), LB16.029
Stretching all the way back to her 2008 solo debut, at LA’s Subliminal Projects, cinema has been a guiding light. Then, she painted her protagonists – Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Shelley Duvall in The Shining – in acrylic, yielding flat, simplified figures that had some continuity with her day job and her art school training as a graphic designer. When an artist friend suggested she break into oil painting, she watched some YouTube videos and figured out that the medium, which she had found intimidating – ‘serious business,’ she called it – could offer her tableaux greater depth and richness.

Now she integrates filmic sources more subtly. The Pond (2018) shows a naked woman bent over backwards in an inverted U, hands and feet underwater. If you blinked, you’d miss its inspiration: two seconds from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, when Jimmy Stewart fishes a limp Kim Novak out of the water under the Golden Gate Bridge. ‘Her clothes are so tight, and she’s completely ensconced,’ she says. Having grown up without television, when Bonnet discovered the movies, she found ‘the best thing ever.’ It still is, she says.

Notwithstanding all the female subjects thus far described, guys don’t escape Bonnet’s affectionate mortification. ‘Women experience more body issues,’ she says, ‘but I’m just as interested to think that men have hairy testicles inside those nice pants.’ The Pros (2016) has two men in tennis whites, a lumpy McEnroe and Borg: a brunette with a bulbous nose rudely pokes a blonde (à la Doubting Thomas), who does have a face, and for whom the expression ‘side eye’ could well have been invented. In The Tube Socks (2016), a sad sack’s hugely swollen hands are trapped, his arms inside his shorts; he looks down, as if to ask, Uh, how do I get out of this one? Despite these indignities, men aren’t exposed at quite the same level as Bonnet’s women; while she has painted them with unruly, wrinkled, swollen bodies, she hasn’t quite ventured into testicular territory to date, she admits.

The Pros, 2015 Oil on canvas, 152.4 × 182.9 cm Image courtesy of the artist and Nino Mier Gallery.

Bonnet often says that gender doesn’t necessarily matter so much to her as it does to many of her painter peers, but she’s depicting more and more women, and not without social commentary on her mind. A ten-foot-wide painting from 2018, The Witch’s Room (after l’Histoire de Merlin), shows a woman in bed, squeezing her breasts, which turn into twin fountains of milk. ‘Women are expected to hide unseemly bodily functions,’ she says. ‘We can’t show that we might leak milk because we had a baby.’ (And, remember that one-eyed mythical monster? When was the last time you saw a female Cyclops?)

The subtitle of the breast milk painting refers to a 13th century illuminated manuscript page in which a demon comes to a woman in her sleep, reproduced in one of Bonnet’s favourite books, Umberto Eco’s On Ugliness. Such women, Bonnet points out, are branded as witches. The very mention of a witch hunt leads us to our disturbed current moment, when women are subjected to an insurgent misogyny whose tribune has reached the highest office in the land, and when attempts to constrict women’s bodies are anything but metaphorical.

In that light, it might be hard not to read her paintings through a feminist lens. ‘I’m so happy the MeToo movement is happening,’ she’s quick to say, but she adds that ‘I’m asking myself how I fit in there.’ In the end, she says, ‘I don’t really have a political agenda. It’s universal to be shamed or humiliated by what you can’t control in yourself.’

The Tube Socks, 2016, oil on linen, 101.6 x 76.2 cm Image courtesy of the artist and Nino Mier Gallery.
The Pond, 2018, oil on linen, 244 x 203 cm Image courtesy of the artist and Nino Mier Gallery.