Art once belonged to men – to voices such as historian Kenneth Clark. But, with her grotesque images and social media satires, artist Rachel Maclean is taking over, and with a giant emoji smile. By Vicky Allan

WHEN Rachel Maclean started at Edinburgh College of Art, she bought a can of pink paint from B&Q to work with. A tutor, she recalls, came over and told her that she shouldn’t paint in pink. “It was like,” she says, “he was saying it wasn’t a serious enough colour. Her response then, was, “Why not? Why don’t you take it seriously?”

Now, at 31 years old, one of Scotland’s most significant contemporary artists, effectively she is still painting in pink. Her bizarre and outlandish films are coloured by a political and feminist view of the world that questions everything. “I want to take all the culture and colours and aesthetics that we would dismiss as being silly and ask, ‘Well, what part of you, by saying that you’re not going to accept that, is dismissing anything to do with women as of less importance?’” That, she says, is part of the reason, she decided to make her latest film revolve around the cult of beauty, and the make-up vloggers who are its stars.

Pink suffuses the colour scheme of her first feature-length film, Make Me Up. Even her own character – a queer ringmaster-in-a-corset who is lip-synced with the voice of the art historian Kenneth Clark, presenter of the classic 1960s BBC series, Civilisation – has fuchsia hair. Though this world is coloured in saccharine hues, it’s far from sweet. Rather, it’s a grotesque and highly politicised journey into the savagery of the way our culture has defined woman, controlling her body and expression, as well as the powerful feminist backlash that is calling it out.

While her previous films have involved Maclean taking all featured roles, this is the first in which she has had actors play some of the parts, and lip-sync and mime to found audio-clips from advertising, digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, and interviews. Among those voices that come out of these prettified, pink female characters, are those of suffragette Mary Richardson, icon of the #MeToo movement Rose McGowan and one of the members of feminist art group The Guerrilla Girls.

Make Me Up is a feminist statement, she says, but one that’s “got layers to it and different readings”. “I wanted it to feel complex to have these voices that are at some points, contradictory. For me it’s more interesting for artwork to be a discussion, rather than me shoving my opinion down your throat.”

This complexity is one of the reasons why Maclean’s work seems a deeper and more thorough analysis of the issues around feminism and women’s bodies than anything a journalist could write. That’s also been the case when she’s tackled other issues like consumerism and fake news. For her, making films is, she says, “about thinking things through that I don’t totally understand and about which I don’t totally know what my opinion is.”

Maclean is so calm and measured it’s sometimes hard to believe she made a film as grotesque, angry and visceral as Make Me Up, or that she was that person performing in it, wearing a giant pink beehive wig. And that strikes me, even though, when we meet, her hair is blue and she’s wearing an electric pink coat and neon yellow shoes.

“I think,” she says as we sit around a boardroom table at Film City, the studio in Govan, where she made her film, “I always like the idea of the aesthetic being something that feels inviting and saccharine and benign, but then there’s a visceral aspect that kind of knocks you out of that. It’s what seems to lie beneath the surface of this veneer of prettiness.”

Part of the surprise of her presence is the voice. Maclean in her films frequently lip-syncs to the voices of others and it’s a pleasure to hear her Clackmannanshire accent, rich and rolling. Watching her latest film, I was gripped by panic, but actually chatting with her is calming.

Maclean has rapidly become one of Scottish art’s biggest stars. Last year, she took the Venice Biennale by storm with her Trump-era analysis and Pinocchio fable, Spite Your Face. This year, with her feature-length film, Make Me Up, she is doing what many artists dream of, and reaching the mainstream. The film not only premieres at the BFI London Film Festival, but will also be coming to BBC4 this autumn.

Make Me Up came out of an invitation by the now, sadly, closed arts company NVA and the production company Hopscotch. They asked if she would like to create a work inspired both by the seminal TV art history series, Civilisation, and St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross – two icons of an era, both created around the same time. The seminary was built in the 1960s and Civilisation was broadcast in 1969. “I rewatched Civilisation,” says Maclean, “and I thought Kenneth Clark’s voice was amazing and there would be something there to play with.”

Among her film’s pleasures is watching Maclean herself, made-up and digitally manipulated to look like “a kind of Tyra Banks diva” while speaking the words of Kenneth Clark. “I liked the idea of this male voice,” she says, “which seemed to represent a very particular class and a very particular kind of white male power structure and sense of certainty and a particular vision of the world and of civilisation coming out of this female body. There’s something about taking on a man’s voice – and an arrogant man’s voice – that is quite good fun. I like playing arrogant men. I guess it’s the cheekiness of it. It’s also playing someone who has such a certainty in their opinions and a certainty in their stance on the world.”

Clark’s voice really does belong to another era. His forbidding, upper-class tones talk of “mankind”, with woman only really featuring as the male artist’s subject. One of his lines, picked out in the film, is the single, phrase, “Feed my sheep.” Food, feeding and eating are at the heart of the film – from the force feeding of suffragettes, to the way women’s relationship with food has been distorted by cultural pressures, food, and the way we consume ourselves and each other online. The result is repulsive, sickening and nightmarish.

Maclean is the daughter of two art teachers, so was exposed to Kenneth Clark as a teenager growing up in Dollar. “My dad had the videos and the book, so I was familiar with it. I was a bit of a geek and because I was worried I’d got to art college and everybody would know all this stuff about art, I spent the summer before art college reading these big books: Civilisation, EH Gombrich’s The Story Of Art and Robert Hughes’ The Shock Of The New.”

She will, she says, be interested to see the response to her use of Kenneth Clark’s voice. “To me it seems like a reasonably fair iconoclastic move to criticise him because what he stands for feels to me larger than him. He represents the canon of art history that is defined as male, the artist-producer is male, and the output is female or naked female.”

Make-up is something she enjoys. As a child, she loved dressing up. “Halloween was almost bigger than Christmas where we lived. Me and my friends would plan outfits for ages beforehand. I always liked the sense that you’re not necessarily dressing up pretty, you’re dressing up to scare.”

The pink world she creates in Make Me Up, is also a reflection of the kind princessy toys she recalls from her childhood, which have come still further to dominate the toy offering for girls now. “I loved My Little Pony and to a lesser extent Barbies. There’s something complex going on with this aesthetic of femininity and pink. On the one hand I think this Barbie world is grotesque and I hate that whole princess thing and everything it stands for. But there’s something madly seductive about these toys and this world and the aesthetic and the way that it sucks you in.”

What’s fascinating about Maclean is that though her films are brutal critiques of our culture, she holds back from condemning. Make Me Up is partly inspired by shows like America’s Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race, but she’s not overly critical of reality television. In the summer, she says, she watched Love Island.” I think some of these programmes are great. These formats are seductive and I want my work to, at some level, function in the same way, so that you’re seduced for the same reasons. That gives you space to subvert that and say interesting things in that medium that hopefully will mean that if someone goes back to watching one of these shows, they might have a very slightly different reading.”

One of the fascinations of Maclean’s work is the completeness of her worlds. She is a mistress of illusion, capable of transporting the viewer via the use of green screen and other tricks, to some alternate reality which feels like a strange nightmare conjured out of our social media and reality television consumption.

The real world barely features. The St Peter’s Seminary that you see in the film is not the real one, but a version based on photographs she took of the site, prettified with pinks and blues to look as if it had come straight out of Barbie land. “I want the world I create,” she says, “to have that edge of illusion to it,” she says. “I also liked the cheekiness of taking this architecture which is about brutal minimalism and adding pink to it and adding decoration, making elements of it into breast-shapes.”

Her love of illusion began young. Her father, she recalls, made stage sets for the school theatre shows, and it was while helping him that she first fell in love with the idea of creating visual universes. “I got quite into the sense of these illusionary worlds. There would always be some sort of hatches that you could run through and backstage steps and things.”

As a child she never appeared in those school shows. “I never did any acting. I’m pretty shy. I was definitely shy as a kid.” She is still, she says, “a wee bit” shy. “I think everybody has got an extravert/introvert aspect to themselves. I think maybe at school there’s an idea that if you’re loud you’re going to be good at acting. But I don’t know if it’s always the case. You need at least enough time to observe other people when you’re not talking.”

She also, as a teenager, made short films. “When I was maybe 12 or 13 I used to film everything on this wee video camera and got really quite obsessive.” A few years ago, she looked back on those early films, and strangely enough they mostly didn’t feature her. They mostly starred friends and other family members. Her younger brother, for instance, was frequently roped in. “He still is. He worked with me on post production and has for the last five years, which is great. He’s really amazing.”

When she left Edinburgh College Of Art, Maclean moved to Glasgow and that’s where she is still based, working out of a tiny studio. Her journey has been a gradual one towards work which is more collaborative, but she still retains a painterly sense of herself as author. That’s what makes her worlds seem so complete. “It’s what makes sense to me, because I studied painting and as a painter you do everything and everything comes out of you onto canvas. That’s the romance of it. So it took ages to realise that working with other people was useful and a good thing.”

With Make Me Up, Maclean joins a small band of artists who have transitioned to feature film-making – following, perhaps, in the path of Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor Wood. She doesn’t, however, she says, view this as a feature film – that is what she hopes to make next. Rather, she sees it as something that was always made for television. “That was why I was into using the idea of different television tropes. I like the idea of playing with the tradition of arts broadcasting on the BBC and using Kenneth Clark and then mixing it with a reality show format, mashing together these very different kinds of TV formats.”

She has, she says, hardly shown the film, which she only finished a couple of weeks ago, to anyone so far. Even her parents, she says, haven’t seen it – “though my dad helped me with the storyboards so he’s kind of seen the film in storyboard format”.

Make Me Up is without doubt a feminist work, yet at the same time the message it conveys is multi-layered and complex. This isn’t just a one-voice, but a cacophony. She feels the film has been part of an “amazing year” for women, one of “growing discontent”. "The Harvey Weinstein/MeToo movement really exploded to the point that we just can’t accept any more that we are equal and no longer need feminism.”

She reflects on the extent of the shift. “I can’t believe how much has changed. I think when I was growing up there was a feeling that feminism wasn’t really on the agenda. At school we did history and did the suffragettes and studied women’s rights but there was a sense of finality about it – as if now we had reached the point where we were equal.”

Make Me Up didn’t start as a response to Weinstein, she says. In fact, she had written a large part of it before the scandal erupted. “I don’t think what happened necessarily changed what the film is about,” she says, “but it has made the film part of something larger.” That's why Maclean matters. Strange and distinct as her aesthetic is, it's part of something bigger – and anyone watching it knows it.

Make Me Up will premiere at the BFI London Film festival on October 12, and will be screened at Glasgow Film Theatre on October 14 and Edinburgh Filmhouse on October 16. It will be broadcast on BBC4 later this autumn.