Laura Collins interviewed by Sarah Bridgins
Art by Laura Collins
I first discovered Laura Collins in 2017 when her series of paintings “The Real Housewives Pointing Fingers” was on exhibit at the Tonya Harding Nancy Kerrigan 1994 (THNK1994) museum in Brooklyn. The exhibit was exactly what it sounds like; a collection of paintings depicting scenes from episodes of the Bravo show The Real Housewives where the women pointed at various things including themselves and each other. Like any true Real Housewives obsessive I have an ongoing text thread with my friends about the show, and one of them shared a link to Collins’s work. As soon as I saw her painting of Lisa Rinna Pointing at Her Eyebrow I knew I had to have it. Not only had I never bought a piece of original art before, I had never spent that much money on pretty much anything. I showed my boyfriend a picture of the painting fully expecting him to talk me out of it. Instead, he said, “Buy it. It’ll make you happy.”
He was right. My portrait of Lisa Rinna hangs above my TV and five years later it still makes me so happy. It sounds absurd, but watching these women scream and sob at each other over stolen houses and stuffed bunny rabbits has helped me get through some of the most difficult times in my life. Never more so than during the height of the pandemic, when texting with my friends every Wednesday while we watched together was the social highlight of my week. There’s something about having a still from The Real Housewives permanently captured in a beautiful painting that legitimizes it; transforming it from a silly reality show into a subject worthy of veneration and study. Other subjects Collins has captured over the years in her paintings include, “The Olsen Twins Hiding from the Paparazzi,” “Britney’s Instagram Posts,” and “Runway Models Falling.” Many of these have been exhibited in the THNK1994 museum whose curators she’s had an ongoing relationship with since they exhibited her first show in 2016, and her work has been written about everywhere from Vogue to E! News. I interviewed Collins about her pop-culture diet, the other artists that inspire her, and what she’s working on next.
What is your relationship with the Tonya Harding Nancy Kerrigan 1994 Museum (THNK1994) and how has it evolved over the years?
We met after I submitted a painting of Tonya Harding’s mugshot to their museum. We hit it off and they offered to show my “Olsen Twins Hiding from the Paparazzi” series in New York in 2016. We have been working together ever since and we have more great shows to come!
What are some of your thoughts on reality TV as art? I love the Real Housewives and describe it as brilliant with absolutely no irony. It has everything—drama, comedy, glamour, camp—and watching it has helped get me through some of the toughest times in my life.
There is something really fascinating about reality TV. Without a script, it feels like anything can happen. I love making art that references reality TV because it allows me to see the show differently. Making paintings is my way of memorializing. I like the idea of making a trivial moment on television feel grand and iconic.
I love the idea of making a painting of a photo or capturing a shot from a movie or TV show. I bought your painting of Lisa Rinna Pointing at Her Eyebrow a few years ago. It’s the first piece of original art I’ve ever purchased. I immediately knew I had to have it and I’m so obsessed with it I wrote a poem about how I love it more than my dead parents. For me having this gorgeous oil painting of Lisa Rinna, this piece of high art depicting what’s considered to be a work of low art, was just so validating of my love for this objectively ridiculous show in a way that’s hard to describe. What effect do you think the act of transforming one medium into another has?
I feel like transforming one medium into another extends the life of the subject. When painting moments from TV, I feel like I am adding to the narrative and altering the way a viewer experiences the work. It also complicates the subject and makes it more interesting to me. I hope that my viewers feel the same way.
Can you talk a little about your general working process? I read in another interview that for your Housewives paintings you don’t like to spend more than a couple of hours on each one.
Lately, I have been spending a bit more time on my paintings and each one takes a day or two. I still try not to spend too much time on any given work because I do not want the painting to feel stiff or overworked. It’s really important to keep the painting feeling light and effortless. Of course, sometimes that is easier said than done.
There’s a focus in several of your pieces on physical imperfection/vulnerability. You have a series of paintings of “Runway Models Falling” and another of “The Real Housewives Getting Work Done,” which depicts Housewives either prepping for or recovering from plastic surgery. Can you talk a little bit about this? There’s something so interesting in thinking about what it means to be a celebrity whose identity and livelihood is based around their physical appearance and what it means to both have and lose control over the ways they are presented. It’s part of what makes the Housewives so great; there’s this constant tension between the women on the show trying to control the narrative and how they’re perceived, to act like producers behind the scenes, and also their inability to ever fully do this.
As a very self-conscious person, I am fascinated to see the way that celebrities present themselves to the public. Especially in today’s world where we are encouraged to share everything on social media, I spend a lot of time thinking about the filters we use to present the best version of ourselves. By filters I mean both literal filters that can be used to enhance a photo, and the ways that we choose to filter our lives to give the illusion of perfection. I wonder how much of this is healthy. Celebrities often take self-improvement to the extreme by physically altering their appearance, but we can still always look back at old photos to see how they used to appear. I am interested in the ways we all work to present ourselves a certain way.
I read in an interview that Dorinda Medley from the Real Housewives of New York reached out to you after she was included in your series “Real Housewives Pointing at Things.” Have any of your other subjects gotten in touch? And what is your relationship with Bravo generally? I know Real Housewives paintings were featured at BravoCon in 2019. Has the network reached out about collaborating in any other ways?
I love working with Bravo! I was able to chat with Dorinda on the phone at one of my openings and she was incredibly sweet. A few other housewives, including Sonja, have reposted my paintings on social media. It’s always such a thrill to get positive feedback from my subjects themselves. It has really been a joy to work with them.
There’s been a reckoning recently about the way female celebrities were treated in the early aughts (the creepy hypersexualization of stars who were still in their teens, the insane beauty standards, etc.) that I feel like you’ve been addressing in your work for years now. What is your interest in the celebrities who came up during this time period (the Olsens, Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes)? And do you think anything has fundamentally changed about the nature of female celebrity since then?
I certainly hope that women today are treated better by the media but I’m not so sure. Women are certainly still judged for their physical appearance and are hounded by paparazzi. I hope that there is more body positivity today and that celebrities are not preyed upon by the media.
What made you want to do a series on Britney Spears’s Instagram posts? The pictures they’re based on are a series of nearly identical selfies Britney posted over a few days in June 2020. There’s something so haunting and arresting about seeing these images in a different context.
When Britney posted those merely identical selfies on her Instagram I was spellbound. I couldn’t believe she would post all of them, rather than just choosing her favorite. Taking the time to draw each one in colored pencil was my way of highlighting the repetition of the posts.
You’ve painted several portraits of politicians: Nancy Pelosi Clapping; Hillary Clinton with Pete Davidson. How do you decide which politicians to paint and what are your thoughts on the relationship between politics and celebrity?
I like the crossover between politicians and celebrities. With social media, politicians are more in the public eye than ever and I am interested in the ways they present themselves to the world to gain votes.
You also make really beautiful collages. What sparked your interest in collage and how do you find your source material?
I started making collages in one of my collage drawing classes. At the time, I was working on large oil paintings that took months to make. Taking time off to make quick collages was a welcome reprieve. Today, collage is a big part of my practice. I source my images from old textbooks and women’s magazines from around the 1950s.
Who are some other artists you admire and/or have influenced your work?
Andy Warhol is my favorite artist. He was focused on the circulation of media images and pop culture. I also love the works of David Hockney. I admire Alex Katz’s simple paint application and bold compositions. I also enjoy looking at paintings by Elizabeth Peyton and Karen Kilimnick.
What is your media diet? What do you like to watch, read, listen to? For both fun and inspiration.
I spend my spare time scrolling Instagram and TikTok. This is where I find most of my image inspiration. The algorithm has figured out that I like images of Princess Diana and Britney Spears, so that’s what I look at all day.
Is there anything new you’re working on now that you would be willing to talk about?
I am currently working on a hand-drawn animation of Britney Spears and my hope is that it will make its debut sometime next year.
Sarah Bridgins is the author of the poetry collection Death and Exes, winner of the Sexton Prize and published by Eyewear Books (2022). Her work has appeared in Tin House, BuzzFeed, Bustle, Joyland, Entropy, Fanzine, and Big Lucks, among other journals. She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the cofounder of the Ditmas Lit reading series in Brooklyn.
Laura Collins has earned a master of fine arts in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She also holds a master of arts degree in new media and a graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies from DePaul University. She earned a bachelor of fine and applied arts in painting from the University of Illinois.