Visual art and the Real Housewives franchise seem like two opposite sides of the cultural spectrum. And yet, for artist Laura Collins, painting the icons of reality television has been a career-defining revelation.
Her portraits include everyone from NeNe Leakes and Bethenny Frankel to Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton. And if the ladies of Bravo are your guilty (or not-so-guilty!) pleasure, you’ll love her latest series, “Real Housewives Pointing Fingers,” which is currently on display at Brooklyn’s THNK1994 museum.
The upstart gallery rose to prominence in 2015 following a crowdfunded show of art that riffed on the legendary beef between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Yeah, this place is basically a tabloid junkie’s delight, and it’s hard to imagine a world where Collins’s expressive, amusing portraits would better fit. Except, perhaps, on the internet.
“I love hearing that people are delighted or pleasantly surprised when they come across my work,” Collins says. “I enjoy seeing people tag their friends in my social media posts because it validates my efforts to make work that people want to start a dialog about. The most common negative critique for my art, that it is ‘not art’ which always brings a sly smile to my face.”
Collins began collaging cut-outs from tabloids and celebrity-driven magazines with those from discarded biology and history textbooks in 2007 while enrolled at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design. “I feel that this led to my work presenting pop culture through painting – a tradition with deep historical roots,” she says. She also holds a graduate certificate in gender studies from DePaul University, which might explain why, despite the fact that she portrays women who are often mocked or vilified, her work never feels judgmental. Instead, it’s clear that she genuinely loves her subjects, no matter how much of a hot mess they may sometimes be.
“My coursework allowed me to see that as an artist, not only is my female perspective valid but entirely crucial in expanding the scope of experiences represented through visual art,” she explains. “I watch the Housewives every chance I get. I feel that it’s a great way to unwind and get a few laughs at the same time.”
The fact that the show features not just Real Housewives, but Real Housewives doing something as specific as pointing fingers speaks to both the cheeky attitude and hyper-observant sense of humor shared by Collins and THNK1994 founders Viviana Olen and Matt Harkins. At who, you may wonder, are these women pointing fingers? At each other, at their loyal viewers, and, of course, at you. “Your heart rate will rise even if you didn’t steal your sister’s goddamned house,” reads one of Harkins and Olen’s notoriously funny press releases for the exhibition.
“When looking through still images of the Real Housewives online I noticed that so often the women were pointing and often aggressively,” Collins reveals. “It struck me as a strange behavior since I had always been taught that pointing your finger at someone is impolite. I thought it would make for a fascinating social study when viewed en masse.”
Collins, unsurprisingly, looks to artists like Andy Warhol and Barbara Kruger for inspiration. And just as Warhol documented the celebrities of his day – people like Debbie Harry, Prince, and Sylvester Stallone – she is chronicling the influential figures of hers. If you don’t believe that’s true, consider the fact that the franchise has spawned nine domestic and ten international installments, plus spin-offs like Vanderpump Rules.
It’s also become a touchstone for a certain kind of brash, over-the-top behavior that is rarely associated with women outside of the reality TV sphere. Psychologists have even posited that reality television as a whole can have a serious impact on how viewers behave in their everyday lives.
Collins has also documented more obvious cultural figures and moments, like Twiggy, Jackie O., Princess Diana, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs, and Donald Trump mocking a disabled reporter. But regardless of how many celebrities she’s painted, she still has the ability to get starstruck, especially when it comes to her favorite Housewife, Dorinda Medley.
“Dorinda was sweet enough to call me during the opening reception for the exhibition! I am still walking on air,” she says.