Liz Williams: The Virgin Saints and Other Paraphernalia

Article excerpt

SINCE 1986, ADELAIDE-BASED LIZ WILLIAMS HAS BEEN DEVELOPING large-scale figurative forms. She regards her work as ceramic sculpture in the historical tradition of the ancient Etruscans, (pre-Columbian) Central Americans, Chinese and the Japanese terracotta Haniwa figures from the Kofun period. Long familiarity and experimentation with the clay has extended the physical and technical boundaries of what can be achieved within the figures, the poses they can adopt and the internal balance of the works. By 1990 Williams' practice was entirely figurative and has focussed almost exclusively on the observation of movement and the freedom of physical expression within the body, particularly in children and adolescents, with their tantalising self-awareness and growing sophistication.

Williams is also concerned with exploring aspects of the feminine experience and it is this rich area of possibility that forms the basis of her recent 'body' of work, The Virgin Saints and Other Paraphernalia (31 July-5 September, 2010 at JamFactory: Contemporary Craft & Design, Adelaide, Australia). Comprising seven wall pieces and nine half-scale sculptures coil-built by hand in white stoneware, Williams revisits Christian religious themes and practices she has engaged with in the solo exhibitions Recuerdos (1993), Reconstructed Rituals (2001) and Virgin Saints (2009). Her interest in the iconography, symbolism and recurring motifs of Catholic and Orthodox observance has its origins in the year Williams spent teaching English in Bilbao, Spain in 1969. A research visit to Mexico (1992) and Australia Council for the Arts residencies in Barcelona (1995) and at the British School in Rome (2004) respectively, intensified Williams' fascination with this brand of 'religious theatre'. In recent years her focus has shifted more towards the psychological, anthropological and folkloric aspects of this "strange and surreal litany", as she terms it.

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The separate and contained space of Gallery 2 at the rear of the JamFactory complex allowed Williams to create a sanctum of sombre quietude which might conceivably evoke much the same reverence and hushed tones as a church or mausoleum. Like gleaming reliquaries, the smaller wall-mounted works preface the main display, the large figures arrayed on plinths facing each other down both sides of the narrow room. The liberal use of gold and silver leaf, coupled with the reflection bouncing off of the glass cabinets, lent a slightly disconcerting resonance to the installation, as if the viewer was regarding carefully preserved specimens of sanctity in a museum. The work Dancing Angel (2010) began as one half of a Madonna and Child (abandoned due to time constraints) and served as a sort of herald or heavenly witness within the narrative, a proactive presence infused with the life-force amidst the inferred dismemberment and death.

Innocente, a deeply personal statement from the artist, is a figure who represents all of the young who have been violated and abused throughout the centuries and continue to be. The figure itself struck Williams as having an inherent fragility and was so named after the making. She was mindful of the story of the "Massacre of the Holy Innocents" (Matthew, 2:16), which was said to fulfil the earlier prophecy, "Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children, because they are no more" (Jeremiah, 31:15). Williams was also inspired by the story Innocent Erendira by Nobel Prize Winner (1982) Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of her favourite writers. This work comes at a time of global crisis for the Roman Catholic Church, which is engulfed by numerous clergy sexual abuse scandals, to which Pope Benedict XVI has failed to adequately respond. The other martyrs selected were said to have been nubile maidens consecrated to virginity at an early age and whose gruesome hagiographies suggested a visually dramatic angle. …