Amber Cobb and Laura Shill’s space in Tank Studios is filled with pink wool blankets, discarded mattresses and a plethora of tiny glossy objects that seem simultaneously phallic and mammarian.
Their creations are at once invitingly soft and pillowy, yet also off putting in their brazen and unapologetically bodily function. Their art deliberately encourages the gaze to rest upon its fleshy mounds and inadvertently invites the unwanted touch.
“In our studios at Redline, we both would come in and find our stuff being fondled, covered in fingerprints,” says Amber. “[Laura’s] stuff would be rearranged and my stuff would be on the floor, knocked off the wall.”
Ironically, the two women developed their collaboration in part as a result of shared experiences involving street harassment. Both graduated with Masters in Fine Arts from CU Boulder, but didn’t begin their collaboration until they had neighboring studio spaces at Redline Gallery in Denver. This is where they began to notice their viewers tactile interaction with the soft sculptures, a reaction they had not intended nor invited.
“I don’t know if it is a result of that [the materials] come from the domestic sphere so they feel familiar to us or because of the pink color they feel feminine and we don’t necessarily feel that there are boundaries to the female body,” says Laura. “[The female body] is sort of this thing that belongs to all of us. There are no boundaries even if we’d like for there to be boundaries to it.”
Amber and Laura began meeting every Friday to discuss their shared experiences and interests relating to art after recognizing the many united elements and themes of their individual works.
“We both had these experiences with street harassment and that unwanted touch and gaze, that just happens in our work too,” says Amber. “It was this creep factor like we should creep out those people that are touching our art. So if someone touched something maybe they would get that chill, that feeling of ugh.”
Both women grew up feeling like they didn’t fit the traditional definition of femininity, and both sought sports as a means to prove their worth. Their art uses the abject body and unapologetically bodily subject matter in resistance to the imbalance of men and women in the modern art world, as well as to challenge more prevalent depictions of the nude, glorified and arguably objectified female form.
“The female body is always on this pedestal and so we wanted to make work that didn’t do that,” says Amber.
“Equality stems from the abject,” says Laura. “Which moves us to death, death is the ultimate reason that we’re all equal. We know that we’re gonna die. We all fart and bleed and shit so let’s just accept that that’s part of the human experience.”
Laura speaks without wavering, but I can’t help but notice that while the two unapologetically discuss bodily functions, orifices and the undeniable realities of the female body, a tinge of discomfort colors each of their voices as they use the language necessary to break the boundaries they have set out to disrupt. I can see them struggling against the societal norm that compels women to be flawless and docile.
When I inquire about their use of pink as the primary means to convey skin color, we enter a sphere that many a privileged white feminist has been before us.
“There’s a question of power there too with feeling that as women we still don’t have full equal rights and there is a power imbalance there,” says Laura. “It’s hard not to talk about this in terms of a hierarchy. I want to be sensitive to other groups that are also struggling with their equal rights and so not wanting to do anything that would be hurtful because people in power are much more able to inflict pain on others.”
Laura has been collecting pink wool blankets for years and Amber doing the same with the discarded mattresses they use in their sculptures. Both materials speak the language of intimacy. The two women see pink as expressing the implicit challenge of modern femininity, an expectation place at birth. The color also represents the space between the interior and exterior of the body: the non-gendered orifices of the body.
“Boys have pink mouths too,” says Amber.
And aside from coaching them in the ways of dipping hundreds of tiny phallic objects in gloss paint and ripping apart mattresses, their collaboration has led to a greater comfort, overall, with their own bodies.
“I think it makes me appreciate things about the body like my strength,” Laura says. “The ability to lift things or to manipulate things or to do repetitive tasks. So the capabilities of the body more so than just the way it looks.”
Amber agrees, gesturing to her brain with paint covered hands.
“This is the strong point and the sexy part and the point that I’m more interested in,” she says. “This is just a vessel for this awesomeness.”
But both still grapple with a question that confronts women on a daily basis, a question that has been presented to them both in different ways through the harsh reality of street harassment or being the only woman in a male sphere.
“How do you remain safe in the world without limiting your freedom?” says Laura, reflecting on an experience with street harassment wherein she was chased by a car full of men.
I feel sad to be confronted with this question but relieved to know that there are women attempting to claim their freedoms and express that they are not to be trifled with. I reflect on the apprehension I feel to walk alone at night, a fear that seems unnatural and arbitrary for a person with such a great love of the moon and night sky. I think, with women like Amber and Laura merely asking the question, we’re finding ways to be free.