The Fabric of Fantasy, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
Jenny Watson is a leading Australian artist whose conceptual painting practice spans more than four decades. Curated by MCA Curator Anna Davis this survey exhibition features works from the 1970s to the present, including examples of Watson’s early realist paintings and drawings, and a number of key series of works on fabric. More
Jenny Watson’s newest paintings are of birds: budgies and butcher birds given glamour names such as Scarlet and Ginger. This is a bit of a tangent as for 40 years Watson has painted herself – almost.
Her alter ego is a girl who never ages with thin limbs and hollowed-out eyes who evokes the doll-like gaze of a Joy Hester drawing. So when you see the 61-year-old artist in jeans and Converse sneakers it comes as some surprise.
She has arrived from feeding her three horses and is quietly walking around a small survey show at Brisbane’s IMA gallery, looking at a room full of Jenny ghosts, some with faces reduced to just a few lines, some with ringlets, and many floating on fragile floral cottons. All these shards of self and the ”common touches” of everyday objects and materials create a certain intimacy.
”If I place a crystal bowl on a shelf next to a painting it’s to do with getting away from the big masterpiece,” she says. ”And it’s connected to real things. The art I least relate to is the art that reveals nothing of life.”
And that life, invariably, is her own, or what she chooses to share of it. Watson lives in a modernist house near Brisbane designed by her partner Andrew Wilson that she says looks like a missing floor from the Guggenheim Museum. Her hair is red but it is not on fire like the girl in the paintings.
Her anti-heroine was born in about 1980, replete with black tights and pointed shoes. A highly accomplished draftsperson, Watson says she began painting herself in a deliberately simplistic style as a way of marking turf.
”In the early ’80s I felt ideas were up for grabs,” she says. ”There were lots of artists using unusual materials and I wanted to create something that couldn’t be copied. I started with self-portraits set in 19th-century Vienna, then over time it became a standard image but it was absolutely mine.”
Like Cinderella smeared with soot, her proto-Jenny used crudely painted text to talk about her adventures in nightclubs, suburbia, love and the art world. Such candour marked a stark contrast to the trans-avant garde expressionist stars of the day. While artists such as Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer were welding propellers and smashed ceramics to their massive canvases, Watson was painting herself as Alice in Wonderland. ”The German dealers and curators,” she recalls, ”thought it was a breath of fresh air.”
After winning a slew of major art prizes in Australia, her rise was rapid. Shows such as Perspecta helped expose her work to a global audience and in a single year (1993) she exhibited in 10 cities including representing Australia at the Venice Biennale.
”I spent five years driving around Europe in a big old Mercedes. When I first moved to Germany I sold a lot of work, you get a real run on and then you get a lean period. But I created installations and had many solo shows in incredible spaces, department stores, old palaces.”
When fame came she mocked it. Giving sardonic titles such as This painting is in the process of being purchased by a museum. Institutions got the joke. That work now hangs in the Art Gallery of NSW. Such swagger owed something to conceptual art but even more to punk.
In 1977, one of her students at Caulfield Technical College invited her to see his band. He was Nick Cave. She went on to make an oil painting that was used as a (Boy’s Next Door) prop for a song called Let’s talk about art. Those nights under the strobe lights at The Ballroom in St Kilda did more than just help Watson ”find her moment”; they also leaked into the ragged surfaces and the subtle need to startle or even shock. She also works very quickly. It’s always a one take.
”It has to come good in the moment, it has to work the first time, it’s like a performance or dance. A bit like Jackson Pollock, who is one of my favourite artists.”
A conceptual painter praising an abstract expressionist is yet another blazing contradiction. As is the subtle tension between luxury and austerity in her work and life. Today she might have been op-shopping or buying pompoms in a newsagency for a painting. In August she travels to an ancient chateau in Marne, France, to study textile history. In between there is the new show Birds, painted on English upholstery linen bought on a recent trip to Tokyo. It’s not rock’n’roll but it seems close.
Jenny Watson: Birds is at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Paddington, until March 8., 2014
De conceptuele kunst van Jenny Watson maakt gebruik van tekenkundige processen en materialen met persoonlijke connotaties zoals stoffen, die verwijzen naar herinneringen en versluierde ervaringen uit haar verleden, en die sterk accorderen met een feministische agenda. Toen zij Australië vertegenwoordigde op de biënnale van Venetië in 1993, werden haar naïeve teken- en schilderstijl als dilettantisch en onbedreven bekritiseerd. Haar werk verwijst naar verschillende kunststromingen van de jaren zeventig die de validiteit van het schilderen en het kunstobject in vraag stelden. Arte Povera bijvoorbeeld, die een onafgewerkte of ruwe vorm toeliet, en de nadruk legde op het proces en niet het afgewerkte kunstwerk. Kunst als handelswaar werd gezien als de incarnatie van het wereldwijde materialisme, en daarom als het toevluchtsoord van de bourgeoisie. Het gebruik van stoffen zoals velours, zijde of ribfluweel in plaats van schilderdoek op een houten chassis, bracht traditioneel vrouwelijke activiteiten zoals naaien in de beeldende kunstarena. De stoffen zijn niet neutraal of mooi, zij houden verband met associaties naar innerlijke gemoedstoestanden; ze zijn vaak enigszins somber, nooit vrijmoedig. Maar terwijl de figuren het onbevangen persona van de kindertijd lijken te bezitten – kleine jongens en meisjes, oranje katten en blauwe paarden – schuilt in de beelden een wereld die seksuele metaforen en onaangename verborgen agenda’s impliceert. Watson’s kinderlijke fantasie roept geen onschuld of naïviteit op; zij brengt een verscheidenheid van invloeden uit de pop-art samen met verpersoonlijkte, autobiografische werken in een ondertussen uitgebreid oeuvre. […]
Watson rappelleert het demaskeren van de beeldende kunst in het midden van de jaren tachtig, dat nodig was om een authentieke expressievorm te laten ontstaan. Het gebruik van onopgespannen doek en commerciële verven met een beperkte levensduur was verwant met de iconoclastische aard van de punkmuziek; het diende om de vooronderstellingen in de schone kunsten op te ruimen, en de herdefiniëring van (de) taal toe te laten. Daarna ontmaskerde en sloopte de feministische beweging de traditionele hiërarchieën in de kunst die het vrouwen onmogelijk hadden gemaakt om gerenommeerde kunstenaars te worden. De schetsmatige, bijna prikkeldraadachtige lijnen in de recente tekeningen van Tracy Emin staan voor de directheid in de uitdrukking, niet het afgewerkte kunstwerk. Het werk van Jenny Watson is soms onomwonden en kinderlijk doorheen de directheid van de getekende lijn. De werkwijzen doorbreken de grenzen van de bestaande traditionele hiërarchieën in de kunst: borduurwerk en andere naaitechnieken hoorden steevast thuis in het domein van de decoratieve kunsten. Ze vergroot de schaal van haar schetsen en dagboekwerken, en bevestigt het belang van de persoonlijke ervaring in de kunst. Het invoegen van teksten, citaten, flarden uit films of dagboeknotaties, alsook haar grote, krachtige handtekening, benadrukken het auteurschap van het werk bij de toeschouwer. Het benadrukt ook de tastbaarheid van het oppervlak, het vervaardigen, de fierheid in het werk, met verwijzingen naar het fiere schoolmeisje dat haar zakboekje versiert. De getekende lijn, zowel in potlood als in verf, op een verscheidenheid van oppervlakken en groottes, is een essentieel onderdeel van Watson’s werk.
Onlangs omschreef Watson het tekenen in haar kunstpraktijk als een eerste noteren, ‘gewoonlijk even direct als het krabbelen op het telefoonnotaboekje’. Ze maakt geen uitvoerige studies voor haar schilderijen, in feite ziet ze haar schilderijen als grote tekeningen, uitgevoerd in verf. ‘De verf wordt gewoonlijk rechtstreeks uit de tube op de borstel geknepen – het mengen vindt plaats op de stof’. […] ‘Sinds 1984 is mijn werk zeer sober geworden, de kleur of textuur van de gekozen stof of een gevonden voorwerp zoals een landkaart, dient als ‘grond’. Ik verander haast niets en er wordt niets overschilderd; er is geen ruimte voor fouten.’ Watson beschouwt haar werk in deze stijl uitdrukkelijk als ‘post-conceptueel schilderen of tekenen’. In haar kunstpraktijk verruimt ze de parameters van teken- en schildermethodes tot het punt waar ze tegen elkaar aan botsen. […]
Dr. Janet McKenzie
“No dramatic gestures, no signs of depression, nor any clever symbolism or pedantic intentions. In her exhibition, the artist Jenny Watson presents a series of life-size portrayals of figures, usually women, who, full-length, stare at the viewer accompanied by a smaller-format oval area containing text. They appear at first sight to be naive illustrations and, superficially at least, look a little like attractive children’s drawings: the simple division of the parts of the anatomy, the rudimentary clothing, including a T-shirt, a somewhat old-fashioned skirt and long socks, the frontal pose in the primary colours, red, yellow, green and blue; and next to them the personal handwritten texts that refer to everyday memories and an anecdotal ritual. Despite this, the familiar response of ‘I could have done that myself’ certainly does not apply here. This work has far too many layers for that; an inner tension that takes psychological hold of the viewer and disarmingly questions him. Even though they are far too harmoniously balanced for this purpose. It is above all somatically that one recognises in them a highly individual personality through a narcissistic awareness of a vulnerable longing for innocence, whose expressiveness is enhanced by a set of colours applied intensively and permeated with light. Equally convincing is the episodic presentation of the figures, which, though independent, are part of a series of events that together form an autonomous whole. The monumentality of the visuals is countered by the anecdotalism of the text. The image as a static element and the text as an action, as a ritual in a symmetrical interaction. Word and image as if in a mirror and both as a mirror to the viewer.”
“Geen dramatische gebaren, geen tekens van depressie, ook geen betweterige symboliek of belerende intenties. Kunstenares Jenny Watson brengt in haar tentoonstelling een reeks levensgrote formaten met afbeeldingen van meestal vrouwelijke gestalten, die, allen ten voeten uit, de kijker aanstaren, begeleid van telkens een ovalen beeldvlak met tekst op kleiner formaat. Op het eerste gezicht lijken het naïeve prenten en ze hebben iets van mooie kindertekeningen, oppervlakkig gezien althans: de eenvoudige opdeling van de anatomische geledingen, de rudimentaire kledij met t-shirt, een ietwat oubollig rokje en kousen onder de knie, de frontale houdingen in de hoofdkleuren rood, geel, groen en blauw; met daarnaast het persoonlijke handschrift met teksten die verwijzen naar alledaagse herinneringen en een anekdotisch ritueel. Desalniettemin is de gekende uitspraak “dat kan ik ook” hier helemaal niet van toepassing. Daarvoor bezitten deze werken een al te sterke gelaagdheid; een innerlijke spanning, die de kijker psychologisch aangrijpt en ontwapenend ondervraagt. Ook zijn ze daarvoor veel te harmonieus uitgebalanceerd. Vooral somatisch erkent men erin een eigenzinnige persoonlijkheid doorheen een narcissistisch bewustzijn van een kwetsbaar verlangen naar onschuld waarvan de expressiviteit wordt verhoogd door het intens aangebrachte, van licht doordrongen koloriet. Even zo overtuigend is de episodische voorstelling van de figuren, die, op zichzelf staand, deel zijn van gebeurtenissen die samen een zelfstandig geheel vormen. Tegenover de monumentaliteit van het visuele krijgen we de anekdotiek van de tekst. Het beeld als statisch gegeven en de tekst als handeling, als ritueel in een symmetrisch samenspel. Tekst en beeld als in een spiegel en beide als spiegel voor degene die kijkt.”
Jan Hoet, 2006
Working “out of a suitcase” has been a way to combine travel and make work for quite some time now. Although it sounds wild and carefree, it requires extreme preparation.
These fabrics were sourced early in 2008 from a friend in Thailand and some I found in Hong Kong. The “watercolor” paper is actually Chinese wrapping paper.
The fabrics are thinly glued to make them rollable and foldable. The extra “piece” that I use, whether it be a text panel, a toy, a vintage ceramic or a veil of organza, has to be sourced on the trip. It must be a discovery that is part of the adventure.
In this case, walking through a bazaar in the early evening in Bombay, many of the sari shops were too orthodox and conservative, with (understandably!) very little “see through” fabric. A guide called Bobby led me to a tiny shop, 4′ wide, stacked to the rafters with every kind of fabric length you could imagine. I tentatively investigated one, a pastel silk pashmina, close to the proportions I like to work with. “That’s it!”. A lightbulb went off in my head, and I greedily chose the 8 I would use, having a blueprint of the colour requirements in my mind.
The draping of the pieces, the tucking, the sewing, the just plain hanging over the diverse but connected range of images has made a happy resolution to this series of paintings.
“Watson’s texts are only ever fragments, the images only moments, the individual works part of some mysterious, larger work-in-progress. She makes herself the fulcrum, the enabling fixed point, but there is no narcissism. This exhibition offers storyboards from a movie in endless preproduction, notes from an investigation we have memorably, momentarily interrupted.” (Stephanie Holt)
When artists paint like children should you give them a lollipops or put them over your knee? Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and the rest of the Blaue Reiter group thought they could tap some primal impulse by making art like children (and other primitives), but in retrospect all their blather about “naivete” and “innocence” seems like the by-product of some regressive psychodrama. Can the same be said of Jenny Watson? The work in her new show, “Paintings with Bowler Hats and Bottles,” is certainly more “childlike” than ever. She likes to paint little girls, little boys, orange cats, and blue horses. She renders them so flatly that they’re no more substantial than stick figures. And rather than paint on canvas (like grown-up artists), she uses materials that could easily be leftovers from mom’s sewing box: taffeta, corduroy, velvet, buttons, ribbon, and haberdashery.
In Standing Man (all works 1992), Watson outlines a man’s figure on a background of sky-blue velvet. The drawing is “awkward”: his feet splay out unnaturally to the side; his arms terminate in what amounts to a jagged shorthand for hands; he might or might not have a wandering eye. There is no pretense of creating a fictive space: the background velvet is just velvet, the black outlines of the figure filled in like a coloring book. She uses a “wrong” color, an orange too intense to be flesh, but generally stays within the lines. The figure is nude and the view full-frontal, except for a “real” black bowler hat that hangs conveniently in front of his crotch, making an explicit visual pun: the man must have a hard-on that holds up the hat. But isn’t that rather a dirty joke for a child? (ArtForum, Feb, 1993 by Keith Seward)
Jenny Watson worked at IASKA during the summer period at a time when many local residents leave town for the summer holydays. During her residency the artist created a series of new large paintings which were shown at IASKA for the Perth International Arts Festival. Her works mixed autobiographical memories from her childhood with references to the local environment. During her stay she engaged the community at an informal level, often exchanging stories, thoughts and impressions with locals over a cup of tea or a beer.
Over the 30 years of her career, Jenny Watson has developed a strong personal iconography that continues a dialogue with art history. Predominant themes in the exhibition at IASKA were mortality, nature, memory and love. These themes were interwoven with formal questions about painting, installation, support material, content and location.
In Doll House Jenny returns to the large Belgian linen format of her 1980’s work. All paintings have an accompanying oval text panel, a typical Watson signature where in this case the texts are the titles. In the painting Gulliver’s Drought there is a distorted scale relation between the figure and elements in the landscape, another typical Watson device. Also recurrent within Watson’s work are the decorative beading, humour, frenetic dry brush work of the backgrounds. (IASKA)
Jenny Watson, another artist taking part in the SPEELHOVEN 03 exhibition, is showing a series of delicate works named ’training’. As Luc Lambrecht notes in the catalogue, it is a playful evocation of two activities: training horses and riding trains. The polysemy of the word ’train’ has triggered a playfully conceptual and at the same time, associative approach that materialized in a number of drawings. And thus it seems that one has to agree with the critic quoted who has summed it up by stating: “Het is een werk dat zinspeelt op het onderbewuste en op de kunst in het zog van het surrealisme.” (It’s a work the meaning of which plays with the subconscious and with [a form of] art [that is] influenced by surrealism.)
A number of fresh, almost joyously childlike, more or less sketchy drawing have been created. With a single exception, each one is like a drawn postcard, a message sent to the audience. A drawn line, interrupted in places, demarcates it at the top and bottom, the left and the right. Another, vertical line, divides this space in the middle. The left part shows a scribbled text (the verbal message visualized), the right part is showing an image that represents a fragment of a factual or imagined ‘reality.’ There is a relationship between both the ‘verbal’ and the ‘image’-based message.
In one such drawing, we see, as if blown up to considerable size and isolated by this very process, the eye of what must be a horse, surrounded by sketchily indicated parts of the large head of the horse, presented in fact by no more than the hair around the eye inside which the tiny silhouettes of two human beings, a woman and a man, are visible. They are carefully drawn, not as abstractly as icons, but not in any naturalistic way either. Not quite like kids would draw them, and still with the innocence and casual imperfection found in their sketches.
The scribbled note opposite reads:
“I dreamed I
about an old
boyfriend. In the
dream I took my
dog for a walk
+ sat on the
steps of a pub.”
The loneliness of the two people depicted in the eye of the horse, as they stand there, still embracing each other, in what may be the moment of finally saying good-bye, correlates with the sadness and loneliness the dream story is breathing. The moment caught or remembered is not identical, but the emotion is a very similar one. In both stories told, the image-based one and the word-based one, we are surprised by the intensity owed to an unpretentious simplicity.
Another work, again postcard-like and again divided into an image-based part and a word-based part, shows the improvised drawing of a woman’s face. Is it the face of a person of indeterminate age? A young woman’s face, or a girl’s face? The large, sad eyes, the nose, the long hair, the curved, pretty outline of the mouth give us no clue – they leave it, significantly enough, entirely open to speculation.
The text juxtaposed in spontaneous handwriting reads:
“I had just arrived
in Paris. I had an
appointment with a
gallery. I went to the
small hotel I had
been going to for 20
years. I took a shower
and washed my hair.
On deciding to go
for a walk and
leaving the hotel a
man asked me to
go for a drink.”
It is completely left open whether this is an invented (and perhaps dreamt) or a remembered story. A touch of the autobiographic seems to enter. If invented, it still lends the story an air of immediacy, of subjective relevance, a freshness the viewer can relate to and perhaps recognize his own subjective emotions in. Whether the ‘artist’ in this story accepts the offer to accompany the man and “go for a drink” is left open. But the hair, a symbol of female attractiveness, and the undeciphered age, occur in both the image and the story that could be another dreamt story. To be asked by a man to “go for a drink” with him could underline an existing (and reveal doubts about a persisting) attractiveness. In a way, the “invitation” expressed at the end of the story could represent a wish, a desire we all know. Faintly aware how it persists in us.
Still another drawing departs from the post-card-type structure. I see a large, drawn frame within this frameless work. Inside it – a drawing, showing a woman riding a horse. Outside it, linked by an arrowlike line, the words, “painting on fabric of me riding”. In other words, the constellation of text and drawing suggests that this is draft, a sketchy design, a conceptual presentation of another, painted work that may never be realized. And this because the concept or sketch in itself has all the strength and validity of a work of art and may in fact surpass any imaginable painting of this subject matter. Thanks, I may add, to its improvised, fleeting quality that seems to reject aspirations of being ‘eternal art’. And perhaps even thanks to an attempt to reject commodification – although such surpassing of the status of a commodity of the type which might at least potentially circulate in the art market is probably impossible to attain, under present circumstances. At the lower, left-hand edge of the frame surrounding rider and horse we see another, partly overlapping, frame-like, drawn object, with the word ‘Training’ inscribed in it, and a second, arrowlike, pointing line connecting it to the words “Premade small stretcher”. Below the suggested draft of a horse & rider painting, a circular toy railway line with goods train riding these tracks, supplemented by what may be a station, two miniature ’trees’ that come with such railroad settings, and a tiny person have been drawn. In the right-hand lower edge of this work, the words “train set” have been scribbled. They are connected again with the set in question, by a pointing line.
Then, again, there is another post-card-like drawing divided in the middle. Again, a sketchy face of a woman. Again, the scribbled note juxtaposed. This time, the text says:
“Watching the U.S.
open on TV
made me want
to be in Manhattan in
I was tempted to mispell morning by adding a “u”: “mourning”. Is is because I sense I sadness once again? This time, perhaps, the sadness of a person nowhere at home. Haunted by some inner restlessness. By a search or deep unhappiness or dissatisfaction in the face of the cornucopia of objects, events and mirages projected onto some inner screen that endlessly mirrors a world of advertised longings, the rush of flickering cinematographic images, the dizzy lives of flat people caught in a plastic screen, framed by the colorful frame of a ceaselessly mumbling TV set. What, after all, are the U.S. opens or the tournament at Wimbledon to a car mechanic, a truck driver, a bar man, a salesgirl in a Manchester supermarket? Manhattan and Melbourne can be just a wish to fly up up and away. By why? What is so unbearable, so boring, so difficult to face, in our real lives? Why this desire, again & again, to be elsewhere? (We know an entire branch of commerce, an entire “industry” called “tourism” lives on it.)
Again, the drawn ‘postcard’ shows the head of a horse. Not just a large, isolated eye and the patches of horse hair surrounding it. No, it’s the nostrils! The raised ears that harken to the sounds of the world, of the wind… And, yes, the watchful eye on the side of the head turned toward us – how it regards the observers! The mane, the long neck, gives way to the breast and back. How sharply observed it is, the aware, watchful look of the horse that observes the world! How nonchalantly and yet, precisely the artist caught it – with a few lines of her pen!
The small window which the drawing in the right-hand part of this post-card-like work opens onto the world of a horse, is confronted to a scribbled note again. And perhaps it is at this note that, confounded by it, marvelling, marvelling for a quiet moment, the horse is gazing. The note speaks. Speak to her who wrote it? To us? To the horse? Make up your mind, decide it for yourself. The note, at any rate, reads:
“I was listening to
talk back radio about
dreams. A woman
rang in and was
describing a dream
about standing on
top of waterfall
looking down. She
clearly the feeling
of the cold spray
coming up from under
O, I thought, reading it: Perhaps she dreamt it. Dreamt of a woman ringing in to “talk back radio” in order to narrate her dream. The feeling of cold spray coming up from under her toes. The bodily sensation of it. More than tickling. Does it make you feel so very light? As if flying? As if riding on a horse, flying flying above its back as it hurries on with a speed never experienced before?
I know I saw the horse just looking on, skeptically, distanced, fully awake, on its guard. Perhaps it knew what she was talking about. And took “none of it”, as they say, for more than a phantasy. A phantasy, is that “a dream”?
Perhaps we can look at Jenny Watson’s Belgian project, “Training”, as a dream diary. Diary of dreams, sketchily, dreamily evoked by a playfully proposed, polysemic word. So lightly (but also lightheartedly?) drawn, these images. And scribbled – these notes. And yet, such a moving series of strong, equilibriated, and yet tension-filled drawings. They move the heart. Touch the breathing dreaming animated body. Stir – the mind.
Participating artists: Karel Breugelmans / Johan Creten / Jorus Ghekiere / Allart Lakke / Michael Sailstorfer / Johan Slabbynck / Christophe Terlinden / Herman Van Ingelgem / Pieter Vermeersch / Jenny Watson