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We speak to New York-based New Zealand artist Natasha Wright for the cover story of our beautiful new autumn issue

Photography by Steven Chee
Styling by Claire Sullivan-Kraus
Creative Direction by Anna Saveleva

Known for her work that explores the dichotomies of womanhood and the gender-driven power dynamics that are so perpetuated in popular culture, Natasha Wright is an artist whose message and métier has evolved in a captivating way. Living and working in New York for nearly a decade, the New Zealander has developed a distinct creative language that marries various iterations of the female form with the rich qualities of oil paint, her pieces, despite engaging with their subject in different ways, always drawing the onlooker in for their urgent brushstrokes, evocative colours, layered techniques and compelling forms. Now, on the back of Wright’s recent solo exhibition in Sydney and just as she is preparing to open another one in Auckland at Sanderson Contemporary, the artist gives us insight into her creativity, her craft and what we can expect from her upcoming show. 

Being a full-time artist in any context is a notoriously difficult path to pursue. But to work full-time as an artist in New York City, particularly as someone who wasn’t born and bred there, is another challenge entirely. For Natasha Wright, a Kiwi artist who has called New York home since undertaking her Masters of Fine Arts at The New York Studio School in 2017, embracing this challenge has buoyed and bettered her work, the City as much a source of inspiration for her métier as it is a practical place to build her burgeoning following, both in the United States and across Australia and New Zealand too.  


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“I am influenced by everything around me,” Wright explains, “so just walking down the street in New York there are a number of things that might catch my eye, the tones on a billboard, the decay in a subway station, the texture of someone’s outfit.” She continues, “But beyond that, there are so many galleries and museums here, and such a big community of artists around me that, while the actual practice of making art can be lonely, I never feel isolated, I feel part of something bigger.” In fact, Wright’s first solo show in New York came about because a friend recommended that a gallerist visit her studio, resulting in an exhibition that thrust the artist into the spotlight soon after her studies and saw her, at the time, included in Harper’s Bazaar’s ‘The Five Best Female Art Exhibitions in New York City’ — a lofty but certainly deserved accolade.

“Sometimes I look at my work and wonder, how did I get here? But for me, the female form offers so many opportunities for expression, how women are depicted…”

Back then, Wright was at the start of establishing her creative voice, gaining cut-through for the ways in which she engaged with and expressed notions of the female form — a theme that has continued to define her pieces to this day. “My subject matter has been the same since I was about five years old and obsessed with drawing and fashion magazines,” Wright tells me, explaining how she would draw with her grandmother, who was also an artist and who taught her about art history and how to respect her materials. “The female form is the common thread, although I approach it in different ways,” she says. “Sometimes it’s more abstract, sometimes more figurative, but I’ve always been interested in exploring that middle ground between vulnerability and power, between softness and aggression.”

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Indeed, it is the inherent dichotomies of womanhood, so present in Wright’s works, that make them compelling, with the artist choosing a continued exploration of femininity in its various guises as her central creative tenant (and discovering a rich wellspring of inspiration as a result). “Sometimes I look at my work and wonder, how did I get here?” Wright tells me, with a laugh, “but for me, the female form offers so many opportunities for expression,” she pauses, “whether I’m inspired by how women are depicted in advertising and fashion or women throughout history (from Mary Magdalena to The Three Graces) it not only allows me to engage with interesting concepts but also, is an incredible vessel for exploring paint.” 

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Underpinned by urgent, broad strokes and the kind of textural application that makes you want to reach out and touch the canvas, Wright’s painterly practice imbues her pieces with an immediacy and a richness of tone that serves to enhance her subject matter. In fact, the artist has spoken in the past of how the substance of paint has become an analogy for the body, used as a metaphor to create a skin of human experience. “Colour is really important in my work,” Wright explains, “and I choose to use oil paints because they are very luscious and malleable, which is important for the way I bring my pieces to life.”

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That process, the artist tells me, starts with a series of ink drawings that allow her to play with the composition and to deconstruct the image. Sometimes she will collage these drawings or experiment with multiple versions of the same idea, allowing her to collect her thoughts more freely before translating them onto the canvas. “I usually begin painting by working through my composition with oil paint that has been very thinned down with turpentine,” Wright tells me. “From there, I build up the surface with large brush strokes and huge swathes of colour and I work on multiple canvases at once in order to keep the paintings feeling fresh and immediate.” She continues, “For me, painting is emotional, not intellectual, so I have to operate from intuition.” I wonder how she knows when a piece is finished. “It’s a gut feeling,” she replies, “I just know when it doesn’t need anything more.”

“I treat my studio time like any other job… I have to be in there working at least five days a week, sometimes more”

Lately, Wright has been experimenting with scale, telling me how being increasingly ambitious with the size of her paintings (seeing her use larger brushes and forcing her to focus on the materiality and fluidity of the paint), has allowed her to explore more complex compositions with multiple figures. It has also given her latest works a different kind of impact, and from an onlooker’s perspective, it feels like a promising new era for the artist. “My subject will remain consistent but my work is becoming more abstract,” she explains, “I want my paintings to feel rhythmic and effortless, and on a larger scale they emulate this sense of power and confidence that hasn’t been as strong before.” 

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In her most recent body of work, set to be showcased in a solo exhibition at Sanderson Contemporary from the 16th of April until the 12th of May, Wright has delved into the significance of the female body as an icon, drawing on references from fashion, advertising and art history to speak to the representation of women throughout time. 

“‘Les Biches’ is a darker, more complex series of paintings that address the psychological elements of a character, where the women balance a complicated polarity between the grotesque and the beautiful,” the artist explains. Here, each piece has been built-up in layers with flat brushes, used to apply broad swathes of thick oil paint that deliver a captivating tactility. Bright pops of colour feel urgent and impactful against the paintings’ dark backgrounds, while the female figures seem to inhabit an in-between space that links past and present; existing within a kind of classical painting canon while simultaneously expressing something that feels anchored in a contemporary context. 

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“I feel like I’m finally arriving at the paintings that are closest to me,” says Wright. And for someone who has been painting consistently for over a decade, it is a statement that not only speaks to the time required for artists to evolve, but one that also showcases the inherent qualities that have contributed to Wright’s success. While her talent with a brush and canvas is undeniable, it is the ways in which her ability is coupled with a determined, driven and disciplined attitude that has seen her build a meaningful career in what can be such a fickle field. Talent, plus time, plus work ethic — clearly a winning formula. 

“I treat my studio time like any other job,” Wright divulges, emphasising the importance of maintaining structure around her creativity, “And I have to be in there working at least five days a week, sometimes more when I’m preparing for a show.” That said, Wright articulates that she rarely allows the commercial realities of being a working artist impinge on her process. “I do try to put all of that part of my work to the side while I’m painting… the logistics, the expenses, the practicalities of running my studio and the idea of trying to appeal to everyone.” She pauses, “I think some of the best work is quite niche, and looking at the sizes of my most recent paintings, they’re really not practical at all,” she laughs, “but I have to do what feels right to me in the moment, and it’s so rewarding when it all comes together.”

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Now, it feels like Wright is in the midst of an evolution, one that is taking her paintings to the next level, both in size and composition. It is as though everything she has learned so far is starting to consolidate and crystallise, and her future looks bright as a result. “There have been many highs and lows and I have had to learn some tough lessons in resilience and tenacity,” she says. “When you’re working in the studio there are moments of feeling untouchable, and others when you feel like the most fragile person in the world.” She continues, “being an artist can be an incredibly uncertain path and it can take a lot of mental strength to persevere, but being able to pursue my passion has truly been the greatest privilege of my life. It’s something I am grateful for every day.” 

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Looking beyond her upcoming show, Wright indicates that she has some exciting projects on the horizon, including a possible international residency (the details of which she could not yet divulge), alongside continuing to build her practice and network in New York. One thing we do know is that aside from her consistent subject matter, Wright will never serve up the same thing twice, a quality that makes the work feel an apt representation of her. 

“I like to think my work is always evolving,” she says. “Life is constantly changing and as I become more aware of who I am as a person, I think my painting changes too.” This willingness of Wright’s to embrace evolution just as she keeps elements of her offering consistent is, in my view, the secret to her longevity.
As the great New York art critic Jerry Saltz said, “make something, learn something, and move on. Or you’ll be buried waist-deep in the big muddy of perfectionism,” which is a place I certainly don’t see Wright ending up anytime soon. 

Hair: Richard Kavanagh. Makeup: Nicole Thompson.

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