Pictura Gallery

Isabel Magowan | Cygnets

August 4, 2022

Magowan Reverie

There are certain projects that have fascinated me for a while, and yet, I don’t know quite how to write about them. This usually happens when there is something simmering below the surface — a deeper significance that I can feel, but can’t quite calcify into words. I don’t see this as a bad thing, on the contrary, I often see it as an indication of the artist’s skill; that their series contains a level of complexity. It’s this quality that keeps me coming back- the impulse to try and unravel the mystery before me. Isabel Magowan’s series Cygnets is one of these projects.

Magowan’s subjects are teens who come from a background of privilege and wealth- the type of aspirational lifestyle that many influencers strive to project. While she begins with a group of peers who have real, pre-existing relationships (siblings, friends and couples), the scenes are a mix of staged and candid interactions. The resulting images are an intentionally indiscernible mix of fact and fiction. There is a push and pull to her photographs- I am simultaneously drawn to them and am also repelled by an underlying discomfort that they elicit. The subjects have the trappings of an enviable lifestyle, and yet they seem stuck in a dissonant loop of trying to project a particular ideal more than actually living it.

I struggled to articulate an undercurrent of this project until I binged Under the Influence, a podcast by Jo Piazza that explores the Mom Internet.” She describes how the world of internet influencing has partially developed in an attempt to create a system of value and recompense for domestic work and motherhood. Influencing and momstagramming” is very much about aspirational marketing, creating the yearning for an ideal, and often to creating the impression of affluence. The monetary success of an influencer is determined by how shoppable” they can make their lives. Some influencers note that a byproduct of this pressure is a gradual loss in assessing their own desires. Instead, the impulse behind self presentation becomes anchored around what their followers will find more desirable.

Despite everything I have said above, my intention here isn’t to make a judgment about the cultural effects of social media. Rather, I am trying to articulate how (for me) an artist has so successfully managed to a project that evokes a very particular and nuanced emotional response. This is part of the intelligence of her work- her pictures reflect the complex, internal dilemma that many of us experience. Magowan captures the feeling I get when scrolling through my instagram feed- I don’t know what is real and what is constructed. Even though the images make me uncomfortable, they also depict an aspirational way of being. I don’t want to be like that, I don’t even want to like that. But I still can’t help but like the photo.

- Mia Dalglish

See more of Isabel Magowan’s work here.