Reading Liz Williams’ Body Language

Liz Williams is one of South Australia’s most distinctive ceramics artists. A book authored by Margot Osborne, with several contributors, has recently been published by Wakefield Press. Its narratives and outstanding photo illustrations, many courtesy of Grant Hancock, honour the artist’s work and achievements.

Williams died earlier this year, before the book saw the light of day, so her response to having the mirror held up can only be guessed at. Artists, in my experience, are often surprised by bodies of work they had (sometimes deliberately) forgotten about or by the way they click together like bits of jigsaw puzzle. Williams could have been excused for following a conventional path, producing functional and decorative ware, inflected with a deep appreciation of Asian ceramics tradition.

The artist studied at the South Australian School of Art, in the Ceramics Department under Milton Moon who encouraged a commitment to an Anglo-Japanese approach to ceramics. To this was added further study under the mentorship of Gwyn Hanssen Pigott. Despite the fact that Williams developed a high level of proficiency in producing conventional Anglo-Japanese pots with celadon and temmoku glazes, and would do so at times, across her career, she determined to follow her own path.

liz-williams-crescent-moon-bride-adelaide-reviewLiz Williams, Crescent Moon Bride, 2013 hand-built ceramic, silver leaf, gold, 56 x 34 x 20cm

Jeff Mincham, esteemed ceramicist and colleague of Williams since the 1970s, has it this way. “Williams was an inside outsider. She worked as an insider within the Australian ceramics scene, and was recognised with a succession of grants, but she pursued her own path, seemingly oblivious to a near-complete absence of critical attention for her work … there was an astonishing tenacity in this quixotic pursuit and monk-like disregard for material success which earned her the admiration of her wide circle of friends and colleagues.”

Osborne pins the moment when Williams made a life-altering decision to make sculptures. In 1981, the artist spent time working under Paul Soldner at Scripps College, Claremont California. Soldner was in the vanguard of the American West Coast ceramics movement. Something in his response to her work caused her to realise that making one’s own work, of listening to those inner voices, mattered more that honouring and redefining traditions.

Williams’ first sculptures began to appear when she returned to Adelaide in 1981 and by the late 1980s her practice was being defined by bodies of figurative work. Embedded in these early essays was a quirkiness that leavened the gravitas of figures, which had monumental character despite their diminutive size.

liz-williams-dressed-yella-adelaide-reviewLiz Williams, Dressed in yella, 1998, hand-built ceramic, paint, mixed media, sterling silver hoop, c.75 cm (figure)

Major creative breakthroughs followed a research trip to Mexico in 1991 where Williams became interested in Catholic iconography and ritual. A large body of terracotta work followed, inspired by the fervent, surrealism vitality of Mexican folk art. In 1993, Williams took the plunge and in her Adelaide Central Gallery exhibition, Recuerdos, installed a theatrical grouping of terracotta figure on a raised platform, lit by candles. This marked the beginning of a pattern of theatrical installations, notably Cinderella dressed in yella (1998), Reconstructed Ritual (2001), Let’s Dance (2006), Dancing with Eros (2010) and Virgin Saints (2010).

Parallel to this, the artist continued to expand her repertoire of figurative motifs such as slightly unnerving female figures inspired by martyrs including Saint Cecilia, who had her throat cut, and Saint Euphemia. Remarkable in Williams’ interpretation is the decorous manner of referencing the manner of death, such as cut throat being represented by a string of red beads. This tactic highlights the artist’s increasing confidence in nuancing rather than foregrounding emotion.

liz-williams-eros-dancing-aphrodite-adelaide-reviewLiz Williams, Eros dancing with Aphrodite, 2008, hand-built ceramic, gold leaf, acrylic paint, 80 cm, 108 cm

This is also apparent in a series of ceramic figures inspired by young ballet dancers in their tulle tutus. Regarding these works Osborne suggests that Williams’ possible aim was to “generate an erotic frisson around dance and desire, connecting the nascent potential of young dancers to the seductive rituals of her adult dancers”. Beguiling as her young girls might appear; the artist often left clues that hinted at deeper and sometimes darker themes. One of these, the rites of passage from a single to shared life finds expression in her Brides series with its referencing of idealised beauty, promise of eternal happiness and transcendental states of being.

Late in her career, renewed opportunities translated as travel, between 2011 and 2016, to China, St Petersburg, Crete, Greece and London. Cycladic sculpture seen in Greece informs a few late works. During a residency in Japan, during what would be the last months of her life, working at the Shigaraki Museum, she found a freedom to explore new territory. Williams was only able to complete one work, the head of a child, Sawa, Japanese child with Koala cap, shown in the October BMG Art exhibition of her work The Last dance …. This work offers a tantalising glimpse of expressive qualities, and perhaps emotions, bubbling to the surface.

liz-williams-sawa-2016-adelaide-reviewLiz Williams, Sawa, 2016, Japan hand-built ceramic, glaze, 30 cm

This same exhibition also showcased a remarkable figure, Japanese School Girl, which encapsulated so many aspects of the artist’s conversation with folk ceramic traditions, inflected with an acerbic sense of individual humanity not unlike the best of Charles Blackman’s graphic capturing of youthful vulnerability and promise.

Allow Liz Williams the final word: “I have always made art about things that touch me and I have tried to communicate something about being human, some emotion, some sensibility.”

Liz Williams, Body Language, Margot Osborne and Grant Hancock, Wakefield Press, 2017

Images courtesy Wakefield Press

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