Maya Fuhr Rips Off the Latex in Her Explicit Debut Solo Show
Why do sex and celebrity consume us like nothing else? In Maya Fuhr’s first US solo show Compersion, the artists’ playful, smutty pieces suggest that the origins of our obsessions, rather than being crass or cringe, are in fact deeply primal. Central to the show is a photograph Fuhr’s father snapped during her own delivery, her first earthly sensations being a blinding flash and latex gloves. Babies are in a sense the original celebrities: worshiped and pampered, 24/7. Fuhr’s birth photo makes for an uncanny contrast alongside the other paparazzi-style pics of queer sex symbols she pulls from her personal archive. After the frustrating “edging” process of layering all the photos in handmade latex, Fuhr whips the latex apart and tacks it back together with diaper safety pins. The resulting works in Compersion function not just as art objects, but as altars, portals, wombs. Images, Fuhr says, have the power to simultaneously celebrate, sexualize, and exploit; in her show, she invites viewers to take pleasure in representations of sex and stardom, but also to reckon with our own roles in the creation of both phenomena. At SADE gallery in Los Angeles, where Compersion opened on Valentine’s Day, the artist talks about birth canals, BDSM, “compersion,” and social media voyeurism.—SAMMY LOREN
SAMMY LOREN: Maya, how are you feeling today?
MAYA FUHR: I’m feeling really good. I’m feeling energized and alive today.
LOREN: I’ve been following your work for a while, since we met through friends, and I’ve always been enchanted by your photography. Where does your visual language come from, and what are some of your influences?
FUHR: That’s interesting because a big part of the influence from this show was my birth. It’s a funny fact about me, when I was born, my dad took a high-flash image of me coming out of my mom’s vagina. So the very first thing I saw when I entered this world was a flash in front of my face and also the feeling of latex gloves that the nurse was wearing. I think a big part of that impacted my flash photography and my style, because it’s what I was introduced to literally from the beginning. I love to use flash because it creates very high visibility, so you see every single part of the frame. That’s the ultimate voyeurism to me, being able to see everything and see details. Flash creates this fantasy world and makes people feel like celebrities.
LOREN: It does make things feel glamorous. I notice when I go out and party now, I’m constantly taking pics, and these Gen Z kids are like, “No, bro, you got to take your phone, do the 0.5 and put the flash on, that’s how it looks cool.” Something I think that’s cool about your work is that there is an intentionality about it.
FUHR: Yeah, and part of that intention is I want my subjects to feel good. I want them to feel special. I find the subject being in front of a high flash has them really seize the moment. Being able to use a flash is also communicating with the subject like, “I just took a photo, do you feel this? Do you feel the light on you?” It’s a conversation I’m having with them, even though I’m not using words.
LOREN: There’s a transparency about it. Your work in this show is deeply about the artist’s gaze. Tell me more about that.
FUHR: The show is very intimate and naturally has my gaze in the work. There’s a lot of different subjects. There’s friends of mine, for example, a friend who was pregnant. There’s work about pony play, there’s work about different fetishes like BDSM, and also celebrities that I chose to represent the gaze that goes with this show. That’s people like Mia Khalifa, Abella Danger and Shea Couleé. I purposely chose subjects that really celebrate sex. That’s the gaze, period.
LOREN: Tell me more about the title of the show.
FUHR: The show is called Compersion. Compersion is a term that has existed for a long time in Buddhist culture. And more recently the polyamorous and fetish communities picked it up as well. It’s a feeling that you get from experiencing somebody else experience pleasure or happiness that doesn’t directly impact or relate to you. In the polyamorous community it can mean that you enjoy watching your partner be with someone else or flirt with someone else. But I really want to reclaim the word and not give it the distinct meaning that you have to be polyamorous to experience compersion.
LOREN: Why do you want us to touch the photos?
FUHR: The exhibition is a world-building exercise, so there’s not just photographs, but also scent. There’s going to be sound that titillates your experience. I’m also going to offer pink surgical gloves and oil at the beginning of the exhibition where, if you desire, you can interact with some of the pieces and feel the latex quality of them. There’s so many reasons I want people to interact with the work, one being that touch and tactile sensation is a really important part of my own life, so I want to share that with people. I really get bored by just going to a gallery and standing around and awkwardly sipping beer and talking about work. Latex is also a material that not everyone has felt before, so it’s a way to introduce people to new materials.
LOREN: It’s also incredibly intimate. A lot of the people in the photos are sex symbols, some are sex workers. There’s something quite erotic about it all.
FUHR: Totally. There’s a mix of sex workers, dominatrixes, porn stars, celebrities, and each person I chose are these unobtainable, untouchable figures that are almost God-like. Through capturing them and then having a layer of latex between them and the viewer, I’m allowing people to have more of an intimate interaction with these people that would never be possible otherwise.
LOREN: What does compersion look like for you?
FUHR: In every single relationship I’ve ever had romantically, I’ve enjoyed watching my partners flirt with people. Jealousy has not been that alive for me. I’ve been in a relationship for 10 years with someone I really, really love, and we have tried non-monogamy, and that is when I really did get to experience compersion. Watching him fall in love with someone else was a really beautiful experience and arguably made us closer at the time.
LOREN: To use a Freudian term, what’s it like for your libido be channeled into art?
FUHR: It’s funny you bring up Freud because my dad is a psychologist and he actually believes in a lot of Freudian theory. I think subconsciously that’s in my psyche from hearing my dad talk about things growing up. I read recently that Freud had a theory about latex, that it was a deep felt desire to regress to the womb. That’s how I personally identify with latex and rubber culture. There’s this safety component and it does make you feel like you’re in the womb. When I read that, it tied the whole show together. It was a very a-ha moment where I was like, “Oh my God, it literally is like going back to the womb.”
LOREN: I forgot that your dad is a shrink. You’re also Canadian. What was young Maya’s life like in British Columbia?
FUHR: I love that question. I’ve been thinking of myself a lot as a young kid because one of my meditation mentors challenged me to do some inner child work. I was really mischievous, I was really hyper, and always looking for a good time. Growing up on an island in Canada where there’s unlimited stays in nature, it was a very idyllic childhood because I could just run around.
LOREN: Where in Canada?
FUHR: Vancouver Island. I’m from Victoria. It’s a population of about 90,000 and there’s a lot of beaches and fields and flowers. It was a beautiful childhood. My parents divorced when I was three, and they maintained a really close relationship. I had different worlds that I was stepping into when I went to my mom’s house, and when I went to my dad’s house.
LOREN: How so?
FUHR: My parents are both very neurotic but very different. My mom is a huge environmentalist. I’ve been thinking about this as well because she was very anti-plastic when I was growing up, so because of the environment and its impact on the environment, we always had glass Tupperware instead of plastic. I think that’s part of the reason I’ve grown to fetishize this forbidden material.
LOREN: The latex, you mean?
FUHR: It’s part of the show as well. But my mom is very creative, very spiritual, very hands-off. She was a single mom doing her own thing. My dad was very hands-on, so he was constantly asking us questions and being emotionally supportive. My mom’s emotionally supportive as well, just in a very different way, through touch and intimacy. I obviously had a lot of rebellious phases, I was a really bad teenager.
LOREN: Bad how?
FUHR: I was a very sex-crazed teen, but a lot of that was a response from being raped. When I was 16 I lost my virginity and that was a rape, but I was so in denial of that up until two or three years ago. When I look back at myself when I was 17 to 25, really promiscuous and sex-oriented, I see that it was a response. I think a lot of victims of sexual assault, can be deep in the impact. For me, I thought I needed sex and validation, and I formed a weird relationship with it until I really embraced my own body and desires.
LOREN: First off, thank you for sharing all this about your youth. It’s really intimate. In photography, you have to create an intimate relationship [with your subject] very quickly. How do you cultivate that space to make people feel good?
FUHR: It’s really easy for me to connect with people, I just love humans, I love meeting new people, and I have a natural curiosity. It has gotten harder the more I’ve started shooting celebrities because a lot of the time it’s just work for them. I’ve found it challenging when they don’t want to engage with me. But with the subjects in this show, it’s people I feel like I connected with. Just simple stuff, like making sure people are hydrated. I treat people as if they were coming to my house. Simple things that I think are overlooked in commercial worlds.
LOREN: I’m curious if you can talk about that, the difference between making art for yourself and for commercial interests.
FUHR: A lot of this work is about the materiality of celebrities. A lot of commercial world and celebrity culture is, “I’m going to get this image of myself and then I’m going to post it,” and then it’s like it never existed. Even when I’m working in that world, I rarely get a chance to just sit and be like, “Okay, what was that? What happened there?” I think putting photographs on latex, a really disposable material—even the one with Brooke Candy, there’s holes in it, it’s literally going to disintegrate any moment. It’s touching on that idea that it’s very fleeting. I’m definitely speaking to that, and also I’m just so sentimental, too. I wasn’t made for that world, I just landed in it, but it leaves me feeling really unsatisfied because it’s all commodity-based and then a lot of the time you never see these people again.
LOREN: A lot of the language you’ve used to describe the artistic process, edging and whipping, is very BDSM-sounding.
FUHR: There’s different processes in this show, but all of them are using latex that I fabricate myself. The latex goes on white paint and I paint a layer of it, and then it hardens, and then I have to wait four hours and then I do another layer, and then I have to wait. The experience is very submissive. It’s submissive and dominant in the same breath because I’m whipping and using the brush as a tool, but also when I’m done, I need to wait for it to dry, and I have no control over it. It feels like edging to me because I have to wait sometimes two weeks to peel the latex back, and that’s what I’m waiting for. That’s what drives me to make the pieces, those moments. Sometimes the image stays and transfers onto the latex, which is a fun technique I do.
LOREN: How does it feel to finally pull it off?
FUHR: It’s almost like the best orgasm ever, where you can’t describe it because you’re so in the moment. I’m mesmerized by it. I’m like, “It turns me on.” It’s crazy that a material can do that for me. And of course, it’s not an orgasm, but I love seeing sexuality in a spiritual way.
LOREN: What would you want people to take away from your work?
FUHR: I want people to be introduced to different worlds, like pony play or the rubber community, or the intimacy of hair. I want them to be transported to this world and not necessarily have to ever experience it. I want people to be introduced to them in a very accessible way and then make the decision, “Is this something I want to look into?” That doesn’t have to be sexual, maybe it’s having compersion for their friends or celebrities.