Laura Williams: A proponent of mixed messages

In Dialogue
A person sitting in a chair

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Laura Williams home studio 2023 by Rebekha Robinson

New Zealand-based painter Laura Williams began her artistic journey twelve years ago in her late 40s, following significant personal upheaval and loss. Turning to art as a means of coping, she replaced alcohol consumption with creativity, using her work to express and manage her anxiety and depression. Diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s, Williams found clarity in her penchant for patterns and symbols, which she employs as a unique language in her paintings. Her work, extensively exhibited across New Zealand and Sydney, Australia, is marked by its distinct yet universally resonant themes. The figures in her art, often women alongside men, clothed or unclothed, convey a sense of isolation despite their physical proximity. The dense and intricate patterns combined with vivid colors create an intensely claustrophobic space vibrating with charged psychological tensions.

What can you tell us more about yourself and your approach to art?

Though I now paint full-time, I continue to work thirty hours a week in the same job I’ve held for twenty years, a Union Organizer for the union that covers Government and Public Health workers in New Zealand. Continuing my union work helps me practice as an artist – the studio is usually quite solitary, and my work is introspective, so supporting members and working alongside colleagues who are now my whanau/family keeps me grounded.

I worked in mundane jobs until my early thirties when I put myself through collage and graduated with first class masters in Sociology. I’d never considered I was good enough to be accepted into art school, art was viewed as hobby in my household, my high school stopped teaching art after grade 9 and I never enjoyed the art classes I had attended in my younger years; I am obstinate in my style, resist direction and have absolutely no inclination to move from figurative to abstract.

When I began to paint, I undertook a personal manifesto to paint an autobiographical visual stream of consciousness of past and present memories via the insertion and reference within my works of paintings, collected objects, fabric, patterns, films, books, and symbols. I also resolved that I would only paint in my inherent style, ignore unsolicited observations, advice, criticisms, and endeavour, despite my porous filter, not to disclose the autobiographical elements of my works as I didn’t want to influence how the works were read by the viewer.

It makes me happy when I overhear or read descriptions of my work that are the opposite of the personal narrative I have painted, especially when their interpretation is a positive one and the experiences, I depict can sometimes be rather a bleak. Recently, I read a description of one of my recent works, Thinly Veiled, which said it was exploring conventional monogamous gendered sexual power relations and unrealized, constrained female sexualized energy within the domestic,  and while this is true, I was also depicting the exact moment a couple realise in unison the relationship has ended while also having disparate reactions to this realisation. The woman exudes boldness, and the man no longer thinly veils his simmering contempt and hostility whilst clutching a bottle of beer.  As with many of my works, I have used a film still as the basis for this work. In this case, the 1958 film Of Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Conversely, another aspect of my practice is that alongside my magpie pastiche of images from a myriad of sources, I am hopelessly irreverent and incurably puerile and even my serious works are infused with sardonic deflection, hence my Instagram and artist name: Taking the Pastiche.

A painting of a person and person in bed

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Thinly Veiled, Acrylic on board, 14”x 10”, 2022

What can you share about the body of work in your solo show at Settle Petal Te Uru Gallery in Tāmaki Makaurau/Auckland?

The show has two new works alongside works that demonstrate the sub streams of my normal practice which the curators loaned from collections and Galleries. The purely floral paintings which I undertake after I have completed a series, still life tableau and room portraits which feature women or narratives of women refusing to settle.

Petal is used primarily as a greeting for women, and children or as a micro aggression if directed to a man. ‘Settle Petal’ is a colloquial Australasian term. It is a gendered phrase which effectively gaslights the person who is angry or demonstrably upset by infantilizing and inferring they are overreacting and hysterical.

A painting of flowers on a black background

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Amuse Bouche, 2022, Acrylic on board, 27” x 19.5”

Your paintings are full of layered narratives. Let’s take a close look at the two new paintings in this show. Can you give us a sense of your source, process, and story?

As with all my works I start backwards and move forwards like a Victorian stage set. First, I paint the wallpaper and fabric, next the vase, then the figures and lastly the flowers. I am continuing to build a language of visual references known only to me. This included the paintings within the painting, the patterns on the walls, fabrics, rugs, and the colors used.

My mother was from Ireland and my father from Wales. They met each other in New Zealand after immigrating here separately in the 1950s. I was raised in a strongly catholic household, was taught by Nuns from 6 until 18 – with three older brothers, a very male dominated household.

One of the ongoing tenants of my works is that I re-envision the classical and religious stories, especially those of saints that disturbed me as both a child and adult. I paint saints intact and victims as victors.

I decided to do still life with a tableau of figurines for the two new works in this show. As a child, when my mother dragged me along to visit people and I was left on my own, I would always locate any ornaments or figurines and rearrange them into perverse scenes to be found later by the owner.

To tell my redressed Settle Petal tableau, rather than use figurines, I utilized famous classical sculptures, where the moment of violence or rape is frozen at the worst moment for the victim and reduced them figurines on a tabletop beneath a vase of flowers: Johann Philipp Ferdinand Priess’s Diana and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s, The Rape of Proserpina, Apollo, and Daphne and William Wetmore’s Medea.

Being an often-unintentional proponent of mixed messages, the flowers I have included are ones that have disparate meanings across culture and time:

Marigold: grief, jealousy, despair, cruelty, purity, divinity.

Passionflower: suffering, cruelty, sorrows, grief, susceptibility, religious fervour, piety, and faith.

Belladonna Nightshade: poison, death, beautiful woman, danger, rebirth, religious fervour, silence, and falsehood.

Buttercup: childishness, charm, joy, youth, purity, friendship, ingratitude, and unfaithfulness.

Geranium: lost hope, folly, stupidity, happiness, good health, and friendship.

Pansy: thoughtful, think of me, fragility, shyness, introverted, bohemian, I can’t stop thinking about you, anti-LGBTQ slur.

A painting of people and flowers

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Mythological Tableau: Line of Sight I, 2023, Acrylic on board, 23.5”x 17.5”x1.5”
A painting of people and flowers

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Mythological Tableau: Line of Sight II, 2023, Acrylic on board, 23.5”x 17.5”x1.5”

You are having a few other groups shows in parallel. Can you give us an idea of the work you are featuring there?

Love and Marriage: Images of Romantic Unions from 14 Dec 2023 to 10 Mar 2024 at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata

This exhibition explores the different ways New Zealand artists have portrayed romantic partnerships: “testing our assumptions about what defines love in New Zealand”. 

Thinly Veiled depicts the perverse moment where the simultaneous realization that the romantic union is beyond repair alongside the unmasking of feelings of acrimony and liberation.

My show Home: Give Me Shelter at The Suter Art Gallery Te Aratoi o Whakatū is from Nov 25, 2023 to Mar 3, 2024.

This exhibition reflects on what home means in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The work of mine they selected is Paradise Mound, or as I sometimes call it, The Convent of My Dreams, which is a Dolls House I converted Convent during lockdown. As a child I was obsessed with seeing inside the convent home of the nuns that taught me and when I finally succeeded, I was disappointed with the normalcy of what I saw. Where I had imagined hammer horror gothic grandeur, I found only Formica and net curtains. Paradise Mound is my homage to this childhood imagining.

A dollhouse with a doll and a table

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Paradise Mound, mixed media 2020-2021, 24”x22” 15,5”

About the artist: Laura is a painter based in Auckland, New Zealand and is represented by Laree Payne Gallery and Page Galleries. She received a first-class MA in Sociology from the University of Auckland in 2005, and have exhibited widely in New Zealand, Australia, USA and have works in several large New Zealand collections. Williams has been an artist in residence at ChaNorth, Golden Foundation and the Wassaic project. Laura’s work has been featured in Art Collector, ArtZone, Art New Zealand and referenced in 250 Years of New Zealand Painting. Solo exhibitions include Page Galleries (Wellington, NZ), Laree Payne Gallery (Hamilton, NZ), Te Uru Gallery (Auckland, NZ) and Martin Browne (Sydney, AUS). Selected group exhibitions include: Wassaic Project (Wassaic, NY) New Zealand Portrait Gallery (Wellington, NZ) Suter Gallery (Nelson, NZ) ChaNorth 2019 Alumnae Show (Brooklyn, NY) National Contemporary Art Awards (Hamilton, NZ) New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award (Hamilton, NZ) and Made in Paint (New Berlin, NY).