The Vizard Foundation
Art Collection of the 1990s
Australian Art and Artists from the Decade

Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams is perhaps best known for her many paintings, large and small, of late eighteenth-century men wandering and stumbling through Antipodean landscapes. With hindsight, these fey aristocrats, administrators and officers can be seen as 'rococo dorks', as the artist puts it. But Williams cannot forget that, however absurd the men of the eighteenth-century now look, it was their vision of the world, and their determination to impose their authority on it, that shaped the European occupation of Australia.

Landscape painting casts a long shadow over Australian art; increasingly, in the 1990s, artists understood representations of the land as part of the complex history of colonial settlement. This postcolonial impulse propelled a reappraisal of landscape painting: 'Landscape is a symptom of and a symbol for human control which operates as an interplay between culture and nature.'1 The landscape is one that Williams's men wish to give their own meanings to. Picturesque, lush and romantic, the landscape is shaped by a vision of nature tamed and contained. Williams's bitter humour, which produces paintings that parody both the techniques and the symbolism of Romantic landscapes, is turned against the 'founding fathers' of southern settlement. Her paintings are funny, but she wants larger questions to be asked when the laughter has subsided. As critic Patrick Hutchings suggests, 'The humans in Williams' landscapes take the question "What am I doing here?" beyond "Why did I sail so far to get here?"; "What am I doing in the Aboriginal and Maori lands?" to "What am I doing being in existence at all?"'2

Far less humourous in their tone are Williams's paintings of claustrophobic interiors and monolithic structures, usually referred to as the 'Chamber' and 'Bunker' series. The latter series could be seen as extension of the 'Men' paintings; another reflection on the ways in which nature becomes the stage upon which dreams of power are acted out. Williams's images extend beyond their literal representations, referring to new experiences in as-yet undefined social spaces. As critic Linda Williams observed, 'The concrete bunker is a relic of ... boundaries and a marker of a new, electronic space where personal sanctuary or even privacy has an uncertain connection with global economic liquidity, international corporatism and informational flow.'3 That such a reading can be developed from what appears at first glance to be a relatively conventional painting is a reminder that 'realistic' paintings can support complex allegorical allusions and that digital art forms do not have a monopoly on commentary upon digital culture.

The 'Chamber' series evokes a different kind of dream, perhaps even the nightmares that arise from the psychological fears that intrude into everyday life. The images begin from what the artist has termed the 'out of bounds' areas of the home: cellars, closets, attics and abandoned rooms. They develop into dark, prison-like spaces which speak of containment and threat. Like many artists, Williams is attracted to the concept of the unheimlich—a Freudian term translated as 'the uncanny', which more literally identifies 'unhomely' effects. This word play, which connects the home with psychological disturbance, has great appeal, both in its implication that the gendered domestic sphere is a place fraught with danger and in the suggestion that it is precisely within the familiar realm of the 'real' that the most disturbing challenges to normalcy will arise.

- Chris McAuliffe

  1. C Barton, 'Head space', Caroline Williams: there, the University of Melbourne Museum of Art, Melbourne, 1997, p. 11.
  2. P Hutchings, 'Caroline Williams: the enigma of the sublime: or do things look this way now?', Art from Australia: eight contemporary views, Australian Exhibitions Touring Agency, Melbourne, 1990, p. 59.
  3. L Williams, 'Spatial and political allegory in recent work by Caroline Williams', Caroline Williams: there, 1997, p. 32.

For further reading on the life and work of Caroline Williams, visit Design & Art Australia Online.