When I visited artist Lauren Lysaght at her studio in an old Helensville bank, she showed me installation photographs of her 2010 City Gallery Wellington exhibition The Nita Gini Collection. I photographed her with her beloved pug, Sitwell, on her lap and we discussed her love of making and her magpie tendency to collect redundant or abandoned materials and objects as part of the process of her sculptural and object-making practice.
It’s necessary to use both these descriptions—sculptural and object making—when discussing her work because, like the artist herself, it defies easy categorisation and creates its own—often darkly humorous—category-bending terms of reference. Usually domestic and fairly intimate in scale, it references the tradition of decorative, collectible objects of desire found in the home – and this is especially the case with The Nita Gini Collection, which is a tender and beautiful homage to her Italian grandmother Nita Gini who owned a prized Crown Lynn swan vase.
“I’ve always wanted to do some work around Crown Lynn because I’m fascinated by its place in New Zealand society, and I’m also fascinated by the fact that something that was very much part of your life becomes a fashion or a trend later down the track,” says Lysaght.
Tender though this work may be, there are darker and more ambiguous forces unleashed in this idiosyncratic array of objects. Instead of cups and saucers, for instance, there are funeral urns, crowns sprouting strange, beaded protuberances (a pun on the Crown Lynn emblem) and swans—all of them fashioned not from china but from far less noble materials—plaster of Paris, cardboard, polystyrene and other low rent craft materials, which seem to mock the notion of good taste and discernment usually associated with the act of collecting. The three swans are linked with gold chains, recalling ornaments from the 1950s that had similar chains, and they represent the lineage shared by Lysaght, her mother and her grandmother. The funeral urns, titled Roydon Tiny Tots Cat Urns, have little cat faces on them, taking off Crown Lynn’s nursery ware, which was made in the mid 1960s for McKenzies chain stores. Lysaght also created plinths and furniture for the ‘collection’, using theatrical materials such as fake leopard skin fabric, wood veneer and found objects. Adding to this sense of theatricality are the pink walls of the gallery and a floral curtain, (made from—among other things—pink crimplene) in which Crown Lynn Crown dinner plate patterns take on a new life.
By using the word “collection” in the title she suggests the idea of treasured objects, which have been carefully accumulated over time, and also the precious memories associated with a particular object—in this case the swan vase that was the centre of a childhood ritual in which Lysaght was given the task of selecting blooms for her grandmother’s vase.
“For me this ritual was so exquisite and beautiful,” she says. “I adored my grandmother. I would come in and we’d put the flowers in the vase and I would sit and look at that vase of flowers for quite some time, and because I had a rather strange mind, that swan was very much alive for me—it wasn’t just an inanimate object; it was real.”
Though the much-coveted vase was promised to Lysaght, this gift never eventuated and yet the ritual may have sparked her love of collecting, though these days she wryly describes herself as a “recovering” collector.
Appropriately The Nita Gini Collection, which Lysaght describes as a collection of her memories and a tribute to her grandmother, will be exhibited at the Gus Fisher Gallery in November alongside the touring Crown Lynn exhibition. Originally Lysaght conceived the work to run concurrently with the Crown Lynn exhibition at City Gallery Wellington, but for various reasons the two shows never hooked up, so she is delighted they will finally be shown together at the Gus Fisher Gallery.
Though critics often comment on the meticulousness and highly crafted nature of her work, as well as her obsessive approach to making, Lysaght’s response to this view of her practice is surprising.
“I didn’t want the objects in The Nita Gini Collection to be perfect—I have a thing going on at the moment about refinement in work. And it bugs me that the more art you make, the more refined you get, and I don’t want my work to be refined. I’m a bit of a ‘rip, shit and bust’ merchant and I get concerned that people expect this ‘mistress of craft’ thing from me.”
Another autobiographical work that packs a visceral punch and traces of Lysaght’s trademark wicked sense of humour is the installation My Casa is Your Casa, which was exhibited at Tauranga Art Gallery from October to December last year. A parody of Kiwi suburban life in which sinister forces lurk beneath the outward appearances of normalcy—immaculately kept homes and gardens—My Casa comprises a scale model of the artist’s family home in Tauranga where she grew up. From the roof down it looks like a normal suburban home with its hermetically sealed doors and windows veiled by curtains and blinds, yet just above eye level lurks a congregation of demons (cast from resin) packed densely on the roof, threatening to overwhelm the frail house beneath them.
My Casa is a powerful visual metaphor for duplicity and concealment, and an intensely frank and personal evocation of Lysaght’s childhood in Tauranga during the 1950s and early 1960s. Installed on the walls behind the house are a series of smaller tableaux – a forlorn looking demon perched on the seat at a bus stop, another demon sitting on the side of a barbecue – all reinforcing a sense of isolation and loneliness amidst the familiar objects of suburban existence.
Never one to shy away from provocative or unpleasant topics, Lysaght is an artist who is keenly attuned to minority groups and social injustices, and she has looked at issues such as disability, ageing, poverty, gambling and mental illness, though these topics are always leavened with her playful sense of humour and her intriguing choice of objects and materials, some of which bear traces of their former life. When I visited her studio, for instance, three chunky ‘necklaces’, made from the buttons of some discarded pokie machines, hung on the wall. These were ‘rescued’ by the artist who took them back to her studio and—thinking they looked like teeth—strung them together and titled them Loan Shark Tooth Necklaces. The fact the former life of these objects, which have a distinctly cargo cult feel, is still apparent prompts more complex readings of the work beyond its existence as an object.
Deciphering subjects and preoccupations in Lysaght’s art is like untangling a riddle, and she delights in word games and visual puns to help us along the way. Unwrapping a bubble-wrapped work in the studio, she showed me a work from her 2010 exhibition, The House of Lentigo, a series of grey works shown at the Mary Newton Gallery in Wellington. Lysaght says she wanted to make a new series emphasising the positive aspects of ageing and discovered along the way that it was quite a challenge. Shaped like an ornate old-fashioned mirror with rosettes and flourishes around its frame, this work is made from car upholstery fabric and its title, The Leopard of Lentigo, makes playful reference to the medical name (lentigo) for ‘liver spots’ or ‘old age spots’. Appropriately, a powerful black leopard is draped sinuously in a tree and starkly silhouetted against the plush grey background of the work.
Even more extraordinary is a tabletop tableau, The Garden of Lentigo, which is also made from grey upholstery fabric and is like the scale model of a formal French or Italian garden—except it’s eerily monochromatic and contained within a plexiglass case like a museum exhibit. The fragility of the objects she makes often necessitates support and containment or protection of some kind, and Lysaght often co-opts plinths, furniture and vitrines as integral elements of the work, which again reinforces its association with the human addiction to collecting precious objects, while simultaneously mocking—albeit in an affectionate way—middle class notions of ‘good taste’ associated with such collections.
Lysaght is a self-taught artist who had her first solo exhibition, Out of the Woodwork, comprising painted furniture, at the Dowse Art Museum in 1987. Since then she has had numerous exhibitions and her work is held in many public and private collections, including Te Papa Tongarewa and the Chartwell Collection.
“After all those years and all those exhibitions my work has more credibility and I have more confidence in my making. Now I’m turning another corner and going into the ‘I don’t give a damn’ stage,” she says. “I went through a stage where I was being a bit of a lap dog, but I’m no longer going to be a lap dog, I’m going to be a rottweiler because I think there’s a price you pay for becoming one of the insiders, and I started to worry that my work was getting too soft. So I’ve decided I need to take more time to reflect, and it’s time to come out swinging. I have the utmost respect for art that is beautiful, however I want art to agitate.”
Lauren Lysaght: The Nita Gini Collection is at the Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland, from 4 November 2011 to 14 January 2012. The Garden Of Lentigo and an outdoor sculpture, Ghost Swan are at Sculpture in the Gardens, Auckland Botanic Gardens, Hill Road, Manurewa, until 12 February 2012.
Header image: Lauren Lysaght’s The Nita Gini Collection at City Gallery Wellington, 2010