Would you open an OnlyFans account for your art practice? Gray’s School of Art master’s student Hannah Beresford’s increasingly sexually explicit paintings have led her to the platform, the first artist we’ve come across using the site in such a way. Here she talks to Ana Hine about the role of the artist in the sex industry, how sexuality influences subject, and the apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders.
As your work has become more focused on sex, sexuality and pornography have you found it harder to navigate the art world?
Definitely. I’ve struggled to enter, let alone navigate, the art world because I have very low confidence. The explicit sexuality of my work makes it harder because I find myself thinking, “Why even submit for this exhibition/funding/etc because they will reject it due to the content”. At the same time, it’s impossible for me to not focus on sex, because it’s almost a compulsion to explore this subject, and anything else doesn’t feel like a true reflection of who I am and what I do.
How does your sexuality guide your eye?
I think I look to images that I can relate to. I’m bisexual but so much of my sexuality has been shaped by heterosexual society, culture and aesthetics. So rather than reject the aesthetics of hetero porn for example, I look to embrace it and explore its meanings and the imprints that it leaves on the individual and also within the wider visual landscape. I’m sure that a bi girl growing up today is going to be able to find porn that is feminist and queer and that is going to guide her eye differently to someone like me who grew up in the 90s and found their sexuality by watching Verhoeven’s Showgirls (which despite what the critics say is a beautiful, complex and interesting film that continues to positively influence me).
Is ‘She Went In As Before’ cut off at the bottom or is that a photographic crop?
The composition cuts off at the bottom; I was trying to be suggestive rather than explicit by not showing the important part but I don’t like the outcome – I’ve learnt that suggestive doesn’t work for me, I much prefer the honesty of the money shot.
Can you briefly recount the story of Susanna and the Elders? What attracted you to the story? Is the story going to be the core focus of your MFA?
Susanna and The Elders is a Biblical story about a woman who is spied upon and lusted after by men. One day when alone in her garden, two local elders accost her and proposition her for sex, with the threat that if she says no, they will accuse her of adultery and she will be put to death. Susanna refuses their advances, and is put on trial where she is saved by Daniel (the story is an apocryphal tale in the Book of Daniel). Susanna’s part in the story illustrates issues of consent, voyeurism, patriarchal misogyny, borders crossed and violated. This is compounded by her appearance in art history, with male painters using her situation to titillate their presumably male viewers and patrons. Susanna has become the core focus of my MFA, giving my pornographic paintings context as I focus on Susanna in her garden without men, free to enjoy her body and sexuality without their threat of violence.
What do you think the role of the artist in the sex industry is?
In general, I’m unsure what the role of the artist is in any context, and can only speak to my own objectives. I see my paintings as observational, in that they relay information found in our wider visual culture, but through a personal lens in that they are about my own connections and personal reflections on those visuals. I think the sex industry is so rich and varied and is such an important part of our culture that is often maligned, overlooked, or not taken seriously as worthy of study or recognition. I also think it’s important to be an ally for all sex workers and content creators, and recognise the injustices faced by people working within the industry.
It seems like your current artistic phase really started in earnest with your ‘no’ paintings in the summer of 2017, which appear to be the first text-based paintings of your oeuvre? Did something happen to prompt this? Was there a behind-the-scenes development not visible on Instagram?
Because I use spray paints as my medium, I was very interested in graffiti, tags, and street art which I think led to the introduction of text. It was also the first time I tried painting something that was explicitly political. When I was younger, I was too aware of the potential to be dismissed as ‘angry feminist art’, in its own little category. Now I’m very open to the idea that the work comes from a feminist perspective because that is who I am, and I’m proud now of my politics and of the life experiences and knowledge that have led me to these positions.
How do you balance your Forget-Me-Not paintings and your Alien Hole pornographic ones? Are we likely to see naked women frolicking in a wildflower meadow anytime soon? Is this partly why you’ve started to paint on glass, to allow the purchaser of the work to place it in their garden?
The Forget-Me-Not paintings are purely commercial, and also are a relaxing distraction from my more ‘serious’ Alien Hole paintings – who doesn’t enjoy a nice watercolour? In contrast the pornographic paintings are the ones that are a true reflection of myself and come from my heart. I paint on perspex, and this allows the image to change context depending on how/where it is displayed – it also creates slight surface reflections so the viewer can see themselves ‘looking’ at the image and maybe reflect on the role of their own gaze. By placing the Susanna outside, it references her story taking place in her garden. I’m still at a stage of deciding how to display my Susanna paintings, or if the final outcomes might be more installation based.
Why have you decided to use OnlyFans as an artist? How do you use OnlyFans as an artist? Is it working the way you hoped?
I started the OnlyFans account because Instagram was removing some of my posts and stories, so I needed a platform that wouldn’t censor me. OnlyFans also seemed a good idea because it relates directly to the themes of my work and the changing ways people interact with and seek out adult content online. I haven’t found a way to get followers though, and I suspect having the link in my Insta bio limits the reach of my Instagram posts.
It’s designed to almost be an invite only sort of thing. So, if you know someone’s OF link because you know them/are already a “fan” then it’s fine, but it’s very hard to connect with accounts that might interest you. I think it helps protect creators, so if I was selling nudes for example people with bad intentions would find it harder to locate my content. It doesn’t work too well for my use of platform, but it works for other people. I subscribe to a few sex workers, who already have a large platform/fan base so it works well for them to sell their content direct or have an income from subscriptions, but I don’t follow any other traditional visual artists on there.
I do think OnlyFans is a really great platform, I just haven’t found a way for it to work for me yet.
Have you been using the faces of other Susannas from art history as references for your pieces? Which paintings do you find yourself returning to again and again?
Yes, I do a lot of drawings and paintings of Susanna’s face taken from historical paintings – I have sketchbooks full of her. Initially I found the best way to understand these paintings was to replicate them, but the more I draw Susanna the more I feel close to her, like she’s a friend or relative or even myself. The Susanna project has really made art personal for me in a way that I’d always tried to avoid, because I think it’s so easy to connect with the universality of her story. There are just so many interesting paintings of her from art history, but one of my favourites is by Tintoretto because it has Susanna gazing at her own reflection, spied on by the Elders as well as the viewer – we watch the Elders watching Susanna watching herself.
Why did you decide to open up your work to include other people’s stories? How have you sourced your stories and how have you found the experience so far?
This is a difficult part of my project, and one I’ve failed to properly move forward with. Thinking of the universality of Susanna’s story, I set up a SurveyMonkey asking for anonymous contributions, while being very clear about the context of my paintings and the potential uses of the stories within my work. However once I received contributions, I found it almost impossible to conceive of an outcome that does justice to the stories that people have entrusted me with. I then had to reflect on my reasoning for collecting these stories in the first place and admit that I wanted to use the experiences of others to avoid using the experiences of my own. I’m left with a collection of other people’s trauma that I am not yet capable of working with, but that I am obligated (in a good way) to find a creative solution for. So for now they have been set aside until I’m ready to properly engage with that content.
What artists inspire you?
I love love love Jeff Koons, and find joy in the honesty, vulgarity, and superficiality of his work. Obviously, his Made In Heaven series is an all-time favourite. I love the surface and scale of Gary Hume’s paintings, and I’m inspired by the way Philip Guston tackled uncomfortable subjects. And more current, Zoe Williams is a fantastic artist whose work is beautiful, sexy, and interesting.
What do you think of Tracey Emin?
I don’t like that last time I checked she is a Tory. She’s a fantastic artist though, I love her drawings in particular. I think because of her honesty and the way she puts herself out there, at the height of her YBA notoriety and to this day she gets a lot of negativity that is tinged in misogyny.
You had a gallery in Inverness under the name Alien Hole Gallery for a while. Why did you decide to open it and what were the reasons you stopped trading that way? Would you ever consider having your own gallery again?
Alien Hole Gallery was a project that didn’t work for a multitude of reasons, but mainly because I dreamed of a small, independent gallery that could feature provocative, interesting, early career artists but also needed to pay my rent so ended with safe, commercial art and crafts. This confusion between what it aimed to be versus what it was, caused it to be unsuccessful at either. I did exhibit some really great artists, in particular Nicola Wiltshire which I’m very proud of. I did learn a lot, so while I’ve no plans to open a gallery again, it was a worthwhile experience.
Where can folk buy your work?
They can’t. It probably comes down to the confidence issue again, in that I haven’t offered my pornographic paintings for sale. However, if someone was interested in buying anything, or working with me towards a specific outcome, they can contact me through my Insta.
Beresford’s work can be found on Instagram at @h.j.beresford and @alienholehannah. Her OnlyFans can be found at onlyfans.com/alienholehannah (though if you haven’t used the site before you do need a credit card to sign up).
Words: Ana Hine
Images: Hannah Beresford
Gary Hume RA, American Tan XXVIII 1, 2008
© Gary Hume RA. © Photo: Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer: John Hammond.
Philip Guston, In the Studio, 1975
© 2021 The Estate of Philip Guston