Considered Intimacy: Jenny Watson
With a practice rooted in feminism, punk and rebellion, Jenny Watson’s oeuvre reads like a painted diary while her CV is testament to her firm place in Australian art history.
Words: Alison Kubler
Photography: Damien O’Mara
When Dior sent out a model wearing a (couture) t-shirt with the slogan Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? for Spring 2018, the conclusion might have been drawn that after a year of #metoo and the reigniting of the feminist flame, the mainstream had finally caught up. The quote comes of course from art historian Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay on patriarchy and art, in which she recognised the legacy of female artists long overlooked. Dior’s gesture is difficult to read as much more than token, even if it is well meant. A $710 t-shirt will do little to right the imbalance (even if the proceeds do go to charity).
Buying a Jenny Watson work by comparison would be infinitely more rewarding. After all, Watson is arguably one of the nation’s most significant artists. Her work has been inextricably linked, indeed, embedded in feminism and punk and rebellion since her early days as an art student in Melbourne in the 1970s, and her engagement with feminist artists in New York in the late 1970s. Almost 50 years on (how revered she would be if she was a Hollywood actress!), the artist is far from resting on her laurels. She continues to show both here and abroad, with a forthcoming exhibition at Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery (running 10 May to 2 June). In January 2019, she will take up the Mordant Family/ Australia Council Affiliated Fellowship in Rome.
She cites representing Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1993 as a career highlight. Paintings with Veils and False Tails—an exhibition of paintings that eschewed canvas for fabrics found on the artist’s own travels and incorporated horse hair and text—was a game changer. Watson is now well-known for these signature works, which strategically abandon realism in favour of a more conceptual approach, the likes of which have been widely collected privately and by public institutions, here and abroad.
Her work has recently attracted a new audience by virtue of two major recent surveys, including last year’s Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and the beautiful Jenny Watson: Chronicles at Griffith University Art Museum in 2016. The appeal lies in the deep connection between her cool conceptual painting practice and the intimate details of her personal life; Watson gives us paintings that though deliberately naïve in style are acerbic in their emotional detail through the inclusion of handwritten texts embedded in the work. The texts read like an autobiography, so that we might see her collected works as the diary of one woman artist.
There is, too, a preponderance of horses, which are perhaps the artist’s first love (she lives on acreage on the outskirts of Brisbane where she keeps numerous horses). Watson makes paintings that speak to the horsey young girl buried within every grown woman, but in Watson’s hands the animals are emblematic of the universal rites of passage (her own, ours) and also talismanic.
Angela Goddard, curator of Chronicles and director of Griffith University Art Museum, says “Jenny’s works are brave. She exposes her innermost thoughts, her fears, her observations. But don’t be fooled into thinking there isn’t a razor-sharp perceptiveness underneath the girl-woman subjects and interior dialogues of her works. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s able to draw on her experiences and turn them into works that relate conceptually to the world in terms of what painting might mean for us now.”
Having considered Watson’s career in depth, Goddard continues: “There is at least one great Watson in each of the major (Australian) public collections, but not many institutions have kept up with her, they all have huge gaps.” It is not too late to collect her work, however. “She still owns many of her best and most important works!” No word on when she may part with these, or fingers crossed, gift them to those aforementioned public collections, but in the interim, the good news is that Watson’s work does regularly come up for auction in almost all of the major houses, and is still reasonably priced. Works can be acquired from between $5,000 and $25,000. She is represented in Australia by Roslyn Oxley9 in Sydney, Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz Gallery, and Greenaway Art Gallery | GAGPROJECTS in Adelaide. According to the artist, the Roslyn Oxley9 show will feature a combination of text and collage works, including eight large Belgian linen canvases as well as two works painted on Japanese chintz that the artist sourced on her recent five-week stay in Japan. Get in quick.
Throughout her practice, Watson has created her own vernacular vocabulary, one that collectors of her work have become astute at recognising. With the frequent inclusion too of her own naïvely rendered self-portrait in her painting collages, she has made herself visible as “the artist”. This seemingly simple gesture is a statement of fact, a record of her existence. She gives us intelligent painting with a feminist kick you can’t ignore, all of which makes her a painter not just for now, but for all time.
ROSLYN OXLEY – DIRECTOR – ROSLYN OXLEY9 GALLERY, SYDNEY
“I first saw Jenny’s work in 1981, it was a fascinating and compelling painting titled A Painted Page 1: Twiggy by Richard Avedon (for Paul Taylor) (1979), a broken-up, gridded painting that drew on photographic fashion reproductions. I had done a lot of research about artists before we had even found the venue for Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery. I went through extensive biennale archives and frequented Melbourne to look for artists that had never been shown in Sydney. Jenny’s work stood out to me as a breath of fresh air. Her conceptual approach to painting combines colour, text, figures and subtle humour to create a powerful narrative.
“I approached Jenny before the gallery opened, and she was included in one of our first shows in 1982. She participated in the 1988 Biennale of Sydney along with other great artists from the gallery, such as Gareth Sansom, Vivienne Shark LeWitt, John Nixon and Mike Parr. When we first showed with these artists in the 1980s, they were all so young but skilled. They could articulate their artistic vision and possessed the talent to execute brilliant works.
“Jenny is one of the most eminent voices in contemporary art in Australia, an artist who can deftly express herself freely and eloquently. She has been part of the burgeoning art and music scene of the 1970s and 1980s in Melbourne, and through her personal iconography, we are offered insights into the essence of that era. Her expressive paintings incorporate a diary- like voice that document her everyday life, with particular emphasis on everyday experience to which most women of her generation can relate to. It’s a personal history, but it is also a real history of our time.
“Jenny has a natural ability to paint with great dexterity, evident in her early realist paintings and drawings, which she has consciously broken away from. She is aggressively spontaneous and vigorously free-spirited in the way she approaches her subject matter. She moves away from the conventional use of canvas, to paint on fabrics such as Vilene (a fabric used by dressmakers), Belgian linen, hessian and velvet. Her paintings convey an honesty and directness that explore ideas of autobiography, language, punk and feminism.
“The recent survey exhibition Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy had a big impact on the way people see Jenny’s work. People have really started to understand how she works, how she moved from the Crystal Ballroom [a 1970s/1980s Melbourne music venue] scene, through major periods in her life, to tending to her horses, which are all candid portrayals of her life. The survey show brought a cohesive understanding of her practice that spans more than four decades. Sometimes Jenny’s work is difficult to grasp at first glance—but in the end it captivates you with its powerfully irresistible way. It’s simply extraordinary” – Paris Lettau.
ANNA DAVIS – CURATOR – MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, SYDNEY
“I first saw Jenny Watson’s work in the 1990s, large- scale paintings on Belgian linen she painted in the late 1980s, hanging at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I remember loving the work Wings of Desire (1989), the way the red-haired woman was slumped on the ground with these enormous pink wings floating upwards from body—like a fallen angel. I think the drama of it really appealed to me at the time. I still love it today.
“Since then, Jenny’s painting style has changed but she has remained true to her ideas. I still see questions around what it means to paint fuelling her work, as there is an interrogation of the way people’s everyday thoughts taint how they experience art.
“I particularly enjoy the way she seems to capture my inner-thoughts in some of the text she uses. Even though her texts are often drawn from her own experiences, or collected from snippets she’s read or overheard, they resonate for me in a way that feels like she has somehow gotten inside my head!
“The importance of text was one of the things I explored in Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy, the survey exhibition I curated in 2017 at the Museum of Contemporary Art; how text is used to convey what Jenny refers to as “the subtext of existence”, those words in our head that we have been trained not to think about while we are looking at art. I was also very interested to investigate how she intertwines autobiography and fiction in her conceptual painting practice, and the role that feminism and punk have played in her life and art practice.
“Before her survey exhibition, Jenny and I had never worked together. I was quite nervous about approaching her with my idea for the show because I’d admired her work from a distance for so long, and I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. But as soon as we started talking about ideas it was fantastic—we get on really well. And working closely with Jenny was so rewarding; getting to hear about her amazing life experiences and see how she works in her studio and on her property with her horses. I really came to an understanding of the important role her work plays in the history of contemporary painting.” – Paris Lettau
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 84, April – June 2018.