Sydney Phillips Hardin


Written by Betty Wood
Photos and illustrations by Sydney Phillips Hardin
04 Sunday 04th September 2011

Main image: "Drill Baby, Drill" (my deflated hopes for the first female president)', latex enamel on canvas, 24"x 30"

'Pretty Fucking Grimm', latex enamel and paint marker on canvas, 42"x 54"

You've done fairy tale characters (Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Cinderella etc) as provocative Lolita types - what political message were you trying to convey with this? I mean, they don't look like the traditional 'victim' type in your portraits...

I wanted to comment on run-of-the-mill women’s Halloween costumes that essentially insert the word "sexy" in front of anything and everything; the costumes that disturb me most are (of course) the ones that put an erotic spin on children's fairy tale characters – characters deeply entangled in their desirability and helplessness. It's bad enough that these characters are spoon fed to young girls, but it’s even more unsettling when they’re marketed to adults with only a cheap veneer of eroticism to separate them from their storybook roots.

'The Last Photoshoot (with Inflatable Love Doll)', latex enamel on canvas, 30"x 30"

Your blow up doll series is a tongue in cheek view of 'femininity' and (in my opinion) seems to relate a lot about heteronormative culture, the sexualisation of the female and the idea of beauty; what is your idea of beauty?

You know, it’s funny: until you mentioned this, I never really realized that I don't think much about the idea of beauty. I don’t mean this to sound like a cop-out but: I see it as in the eye of the beholder. The end. The "beauty" of the subjects I paint isn't the issue for me; my work is a parody of the sexualisation of women. Beauty is entangled with the sexualisation of the people and things I'm critiquing but it’s not the true bone of contention. 

Beauty is purely physical and it makes sense to me that physical perfection is employed to sell products or ideas. Hell, male beauty is used in just such a way! But a physically attractive woman is not used as mere garnish to sell products or ideas; she is manipulated to reflect predictable aspects of her sexual identity. I’m fine with a beautiful woman tempting me to buy this or that, but not when she's also posed to appear naive and childlike or filthy and impure. Ultimately, my tongue-in-cheek commentaries on femininity are inspired by these insidious caricatures of sexual identity (rather than a frustration with norms of beauty).

'Inflatable Love Doll Descending a Staircase', latex enamel on canvas, 24" x 38"

Blow up dolls exist solely for the sexual gratification of men, and yet they tend to be pretty hideous and extreme in their 'assets'. Why do you think the male sex doll isn't quite as iconic? And why isn't the female sex-industry making a surge in the 21st century? After all, we're liberated women now, right?

“Hideous and extreme” indeed: did you know that the orifices of blow up dolls come sealed and you have to cut them open with scissors?! Anyway, perhaps that has something to do with why the male sex doll is not iconic: women aren’t socialized to objectify the male body in the same ways. Or maybe it has something to do with the abrasive plastic seams... In all seriousness, women and men are being sold the same anaemic misconceptions about female sexual identity, and I think that may also have something to do with the lack of demand for and development of a female sex-industry. We’re not as liberated as we think - we've come a long way (God knows I’m thankful I don’t have to wear a bra), but our erotic range is still profoundly stunted, especially when compared with our career and education prospects.

Your portrait of Sarah Palin as a blow-up doll has received quite a bit of media attention; did you use Palin as you wanted to make a specific statement about her as a public figure, or because she embodies so many of the values your work seeks to challenge?

Definitely a little of both - the response to the painting has been overwhelmingly positive, but I know that some people think I'm making a literal and wholly sexist statement by painting her as a sex toy. It’s not that simple to me: I see her as a salesperson peddling ideas rather than a politician, all of which I disagree with.  

Sarah Palin is politically impotent; her messages and platforms are not about politics but rather about “moral” issues and I'm fed up with the conflation of the two within United States politics. The (mostly male) Republican Party certainly exploits her as they would a sex toy. In turn, I painted Palin as a blow-up doll to highlight this exploitation and to draw a sardonic comparison between her political uselessness and the ineffectuality of a deflated sex doll.

'Birth of the Inflatable Love Doll', latex enamel on canvas, 42"x 58"

How do you create your portraits?

My paintings are latex enamel on canvas, with some paint marker thrown in occasionally. For those of you playing along at home, "latex enamel" is interior house paint - the same thing you'd use to paint a room. I love its smooth surface, vivid colours and (since I make large paintings) relatively cheap price. I use an eco-friendly brand called Mythic that is completely non-toxic - something that became really important last year when my boyfriend and I adopted a parrot who likes to hang out with me while I paint.

Is it kind of ironic that so much of your work is concerned with questioning the boundaries of gender and its representation and yet you're frequently forced to clarify your own gender?

Ironic? Yes. But you know what? I kind of love it. The first time my work was ever reviewed in a publication, I went to my local newsstand at the ass-crack of dawn to get a copy – I didn’t expect to be mistaken for a man. I was upset at first because the reviewer was obviously (mis)interpreting my work through the lens of my erroneous gender, but then I realized that it was hilarious and thought-provoking lesson in not taking myself – or reviews - too seriously. It continues to happen with some regularity and I think it says a lot more about the people making the mistake than it does about me.

'Evidence #1', chalk and chalkboard spray paint on paper, 9"x 12"

What are you currently working on?

I have three paintings in the works right now. My favourite is a blow up doll version of Courbet's “L'Origin du Monde”. I've got a version on Manet's “Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe” on the easel and I just started sketches for an inflatable love doll Michele Bachmann! I've been waiting for her to do something (for lack of a better phrase) visually iconic so I could paint her portrait and Newsweek really came through for me last week.


Syd is taking commissions through her Etsy store from next month. In the meantime, more examples of her work can be found here.

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  • Guest: eric.dontpaniconline
    Tue 06 - Sep - 2011, 18:15
    lijordanp2011, pretty sure it's supposed to be satirical. :-P
  • bettywood
    Tue 06 - Sep - 2011, 12:09
    Syd is a female artist drawing attention (through her work) to how women are degraded, and the social politics of gender (especially with regard to young children being gender-typed and the role of public figures in redressing the gender bias). Her work is a visual representation of that degredation (as she explains in the interview). Thank you for taking the time to comment.
  • Guest: lijordanp2011
    Tue 06 - Sep - 2011, 09:16
    Another artist degrading women. Trash.