Petra Collins is a wreck. She’s calling from upstate New York, and the first thing she says is that she’s had a sinus infection for weeks and the previous day dislocated her knee. “I was doing this shoot and dancing, and it just popped out,” she tells the Voice. “But I guess it happened at a good time.” A few days before, Collins opened her first solo exhibition — on view at Capricious 88 — and though the event is behind her, she’s curating a group show the following weekend, just signed a book deal, is planning a move to NYC, and shows no signs of slowing down. For the present moment, however, she’s on pause, fielding texts from friends while she prepares for her next step. Her enthusiasm is enough to make a jaded arts writer feel old, and some of her works are bound to make a gallery-goer older than 30 feel dated. Collins’s exhibition features neon text works, two of which include the abbreviation “rn.” What does that mean? “Right now!” she says, laughing. “It’s something that’s so of our generation that we just get it.”
Though aspects of Collins’s work feel youth-specific, there is much that is lucid across age groups. The Toronto-born artist addresses the insecurities and angst of the female teenage experience through her artworks, which range from photographs of her sister and friends to the aforementioned neon and some provocative, gender-related sculpture.
The photographs depict young women in various intimate scenes — talking with friends, experiencing moments of loneliness and melancholy, and in one case masturbating. Their discomfort in their own skin is both palpable and instantly relatable; the grainy quality of the image, borne of Collins’s exclusive use of 35mm film, adds a timeless effect accentuated by the new-again high-waisted bottoms worn by the young women.
Though the photographs are lushly lighted and somewhat sentimental, many of the works deal aggressively with the physical changes of female adolescence. The sculptures comprise panties stained with various discharge, stiffened in crumpled yet erect shapes. The dirty underwear, which might otherwise be considered shameful, is prominently on display. The sum of these works is a forthright statement of puberty that, rather than being blithely boastful or hiding its traumas, proclaims its realities. In this way, Collins’s work confronts the physical and emotional experience of “womanhood” with a keen insight that is perhaps unsurprising given that the artist herself is only 21.
Collins possesses a maturity that can only come from years of experience. She began taking photographs when she was 15, describing the lure of the medium as “a way to work through my own frustration with coming of age.” Since then she has worked with Richard Kern and Ryan McGinley and shot projects for Vice, Vogue, and Rookie. Collins’s work with that last publication parallels her own rise. Rookie began as a blog operated by a then-preteen Tavi Gevinson, which expanded as Gevinson grew and now exists as a web-magazine with annual print editions.
The two wunderkinds had a serendipitous first encounter. “A friend suggested I reach out to Tavi because she was starting this magazine, and Tavi emailed back immediately saying she was already planning on reaching out to me,” Collins recalls. Both already had a large internet fanbase, which Collins says provided her autonomy early on. “I was lucky to be able to send my own work in my own platform, like Tavi who was able to create her own magazine rather than have a normal career path,” she says, describing the Internet is “a way to connect with a larger audience and people all over the world, especially young girls who have the same feelings.”
The internet has been a critical tool for Collins’s career, but it has also been the source of backlash. Last fall she collaborated with mega-retailer American Apparel on a T-shirt design featuring a manicured hand practicing self-love on an amply hair-rimmed, audaciously menstruating vulva. It’s an image designed to send a message, and it was Collins’s first venture for a general audience. “It’s great to be able to create art with a message, but at the end of the day those messages stay in art and you’re preaching to the choir,” she says. “I wanted to create a message that was available for a mass audience.”
Though Collins anticipated the response to the now-infamous shirt, it wouldn’t be long before she found herself censored for an image she hadn’t predicted would provoke. In October she posted a self-portrait on Instagram that spurred the site to revoke her account. The blurry photo depicts her lower torso and thighs, clad in a bikini bottom, with a narrow ridge of pubic hair peeking from the sides and top of the swimsuit. Suddenly, Collins found herself — and her body — the center of negative attention. “My Instagram account was removed because the general public wanted to censor my body,” she says, baffled. “That was insane to me. And that’s when I realized there really is a problem.”
In response, Collins wrote an essay that was published in Oyster magazine and the Huffington Post, decrying the prevalence of oversexualized images of women as well as the vitriol women experience across a broad swath of culture. The incident garnered support from thousands of her Instagram followers (she has since created a new account) and has positioned Collins as the face — or crotch — of a movement. She welcomes the challenge.
“I know it sounds really cheesy, but I want to be able to create images that can create change,” she says with an earnestness that betrays her age. “As a prepubescent girl, my body was going through all these changes and I remember thinking my body was the most important thing. It’s really scary to realize that I felt that way about myself and that a lot of girls feel that way. I see it in my sister, and it kills me. It kills me that girls see images every day that tell them they’re not good enough.”
Though Collins has recently aged out of her subject group, she plans to continue working with teenagers while incorporating other aspects of the female experience. “I’m still interested in teenage girls, but also the spectrum from the other end,” she says. “As women we’re constantly hiding these things that make up our gender, like our menstrual cycle. The two times women go through changes are puberty and menopause, both times when women have their agency removed — things you have to hide that aren’t part of the feminine ideal. I would really like to explore the full spectrum.”