Gallery London Gallery Weekend Review

Unveiling the Raw Beauty of Nature: Maisie Cousins ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ at TJ Boulting

Maisie Cousins ‘Walking Back To Happiness’

Venue: TJ Boulting, London

Curated by David Beschizza

Maisie Cousins. Sprinkles and Fly, Archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle Pearl paper, TJ Boulting, London, 2023

Maisie Cousins’s latest exhibition, “Walking Back to Happiness,” presents a compelling fusion of her close-up and visceral photography with a daring foray into the realms of AI and installation art. At its core, the exhibition delves into the artist’s relentless pursuit of reliving childhood memories—an obsession that permeates her entire body of work.


Cousins is renowned for her evocative and sensorial imagery, which possesses an equal power to repel and attract. Her pieces feature a riot of organic forms, encompassing flowers, insects, food, and refuse, all interwoven in a symphony of vibrant hues and textures that often exude a raw, almost unsettling quality. Initially, her artistic journey began by capturing glimpses of the macro world from the vantage points of her teenage bedroom or the kitchen table, always unearthing an irreverent beauty within life’s forgotten crevices. However, “Walking Back to Happiness” marks a return to the intimate confines of domesticity, as Cousins cares for her young daughter in the seaside town of St Leonards. Surrounded by nostalgic childhood artifacts and distanced from the constant sensory overload of her twenties in London, her imagery now exudes a palpable longing for the past and the idyllic British seaside—a tapestry of chips and ketchup on colored carpets, melting ice cream on pink shag pile, vibrant and kitschy plastic toys, sweet treats, and colorful buttons. This visual tapestry becomes intertwined with her re-immersion into the creatively restrictive environment of home. Amidst the distorted array of childlike objects in her captivating close-ups—bursting with vivid colors and rich textures—one encounters the endearing presence of her daughter’s messy, ice cream-covered face. A constant companion, it subtly hints at the quasi-collaborative nature of Cousins’s new works. The isolation experienced at her seaside home has also fueled her online fixation with unearthing childhood objects that trigger waves of nostalgic endorphins—be it Tudor crisp packets, vintage board games, or hidden treasures found in junk shops. These objects find their way into her art as bold graphic layers, some immortalized on acrylic, serving as a heartfelt tribute to the 1970s childhood she never personally experienced.

Maisie Cousins. Exhibition view, TJ Boulting, London, 2023

The artist’s search for a lost childhood takes a deeper, more obsessive turn in a second series of works that harness the power of AI. Tragically, family videos of Cousins as a young girl, accompanied by her grandfather during visits to her cherished Blobbyland theme park, were accidentally destroyed when she unknowingly left them behind at art college. Left without him or any surviving footage of their cherished moments, Cousins turned to AI in a desperate attempt to reconstruct the memories of that irreplaceable time and place. The song “Walking Back to Happiness” by Helen Shapiro, which her grandfather would play in the car on their amusement park adventures, serves as the poignant inspiration behind the AI-generated scenes. These scenes tap into the realm of British holiday camps, inhabited by a unique folklore and populated by comical and vibrant characters that exist only within this amalgamation of reality and make-believe. Drawing inspiration from the saturated, vibrant colors and nostalgic seaside postcard scenes of John Hinde and Martin Parr, Cousins’s AI works possess a slight touch of madness and humor, offering a surreal yet revealing glimpse into the artistic triggers that drive her creative process.

Maisie Cousins. Exhibition view, TJ Boulting, London, 2023

Cousins’s previous work with collage finds a kindred spirit in her utilization of AI, both serving as means to harness existing imagery and transform it into the realm of the surreal and psychological, blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The spontaneous juxtapositions of real images, characteristic of her collage work, find echoes in the realm of AI, while the role of the unconscious within the creative process aligns with the spirit of surrealism. These AI works provide Cousins with a powerful tool to explore her insatiable craving for the euphoric rush of nostalgia—an obsession that becomes, in a way, akin to that of a gambler. The process of conducting AI searches itself became somewhat addictive, with the uncanny imagery generated by the algorithms tapping into her profound yearning for nostalgic sensations.

Maisie Cousins. Exhibition view, TJ Boulting, London, 2023

From hundreds of AI-generated scenes, Cousins carefully selects nineteen to bring into the physical world. To further bridge the gap between AI and tangible reality, she creates life-size sculptural representations of two characters depicted in the images: a headless blue lobster and a smiling cartoon celery. In the background, a looped playback of found karaoke versions of “Walking Back to Happiness” permeates the space. Each rendition begins with the heartfelt opening line, “Funny, but it’s true…” This line’s significance resonates deeply with Cousins’s AI images made tangible—a whimsical conduit that conjures the nostalgic rush she craves and resurrects intangible memories from the past.

Maisie Cousins. Exhibition view, TJ Boulting, London, 2023

“Walking Back to Happiness” is an immersive artistic experience that unveils Maisie Cousins’s unyielding quest to recapture the essence of childhood and the interplay between reality and fantasy. is an exhibition that pushes artistic boundaries by seamlessly integrating the organic and the artificial. Through her exploration of the raw beauty found within nature and her bold incorporation of AI, Cousins challenges conventional notions of aesthetics, offering a fresh and thought-provoking perspective. This fusion of art and technology raises ethical questions and invites viewers to reconsider the role of the artist in the digital age. ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ stands as a testament to Cousins’ innovative spirit and her ability to inspire introspection through a fusion of human agency and AI-generated responses.

Victor Kuili

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