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Retrospective of Jenny Watson’s primitive style strikes a chord

From The Age, 10 November 2017
by Kerrie O'Brien

For Jenny Watson, who grew up in sleepy Mont Albert and then the Dandenongs, coming into the city to study art was a gamechanger. It was the 1970s and inner city Melbourne was a hot bed of creativity. The emergence of the music scene in particular was revolutionary, with St Kilda as its epicentre. “There were droves of people coming in from the suburbs wanting a different experience. People were ambitious and people wanted to get out.”

The Crystal Ballroom was the place to be, home to performances by the likes of Lisa Gerrard, fronting Dead Can Dance, and a young Nick Cave, with The Boys Next Door. (In 1979, Cave used Watson’s portrait of him – called An Original Oil Painting – as part of a performance on stage; she taught the singer at the then Caulfield Institute.)

“These times and places are legendary now. It was an incredible creative time and it was a very magic time. I think people could live OK on the dole and were quite happy to shop in op shops and drink beer and not wine – it was low-key and there were great things happening.”

An internationally acclaimed artist, Watson studied at what is now the Victorian College of the Arts, where the teaching was largely studio-based. She has work on show in eight galleries globally, as well as at Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne, and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Her mantra is to keep things interesting – it’s how she approaches her work and what she teaches her students. “A lot of artists see that they can do a particular thing and they will keep on doing that particular thing.”

She firmly believes an innovative practice is essential, “to keep it interesting for yourself and for other artists and for students, it has to keep growing somehow”.

A retrospective of her work is currently showing at Heide, which features works from the 1970s to the present, including examples of her early realist paintings and drawings, and a number of key series of works on fabric. Called Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy, it was curated by Anna Davis of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney .

“When I walked in … on the first day of hanging, I found it quite breathtaking as to how much work I’d done,” Watson says. “Because I never felt that I was working particularly hard, I was just working constantly, even if I was teaching or travelling or doing other things.

“It is pretty interesting to see your whole life roll out in front of you.”

Watson was 12 when her family moved out of the suburbs to the hills on the edge of Melbourne. Significantly, this is where she got her first horse, one of her great passions in life. Today, she lives on a property outside Brisbane, where she gets up at 5am every day to feed her five horses; she rides regularly and welcomes those keen to learn to her property to take lessons.

There is a simplicity and an honesty to much of Watson’s work; her thoughts seem to flow freely onto the canvas. This stands in contrast to her highly realistic early works, such as the house series, but she realised she couldn’t sustain her output if she continued in that vein. “So yeah I deliberately adapted the de-skilling in a way, a more primitive way of depicting an image, but that’s what I’m known for, that’s given me a career in Europe. People seem to be really interested in a primitive depiction of images.”

Early on she adopted text into her work, a move she says was largely influenced by television. “I was interested in the way credits rolled up the screen at the end of a show,” she says. “I gave myself the licence to use text for anything, whether it be a shopping list or an overheard sentence or the temperature of the day. Text is an abstract possibility – it can be the most personal letter or it can be the price of petrol.”

Likewise, she argues, colour is an abstract possibility: red can be an apple or a pair of shoes or the roof on a house.

So, is her work deliberately political? “The very act of using personal thoughts in a public way is probably political but it’s not political with a capital P,” she says with a laugh. “I would never talk about the state of the Australian government.”

Of course, the 1970s adage is that the personal is political: “That’s part of existence, which I’ve brought into my work in a big way, and it’s kind of got a lot of attention.”

The notion of the self extends beyond the use of text in her work. The little girl, almost Alice in Wonderland-like, that recurs in many pieces, her take on her physical self and the familiar horse motif all represent something of the artist.  “What I realised when the image of the horse came into the work, I think there is an exchange of identity somehow.”

Someone once said that any portrait painted sensitively is actually a portrait of the artist as well as the sitter, an idea which resonates. “If you’re interested in something, it’s part of your psyche that’s connecting with that – whether it be a flower or a horse or whatever – so it sort of has to be part of you I guess. I came to a decision where I felt that art should not be about exclusion, that the inner life of the artist could be very interesting food for thought.

“I decided to put in the whole shebang, the whole mess … Being human and particularly being a girl human, growing up in the suburbs. And I thought could that be an interesting topic. History seems to say, hell, yeah!”

In what she calls a lightbulb moment, at a certain point in her career she noticed that the feedsacks for her horses were like Belgian linen, the traditional material used in canvases. “In 1982, I unstitched one of those bags and primed it with rabbit skin glue and started painting on it. I realised that there was no maxim that you had to paint on canvas and, in that moment, every fabric from every culture in the world became a possible canvas.”

That’s what she has been working with ever since, in particular a lot of fabrics from Asia and India. She is constantly looking for them and that quest has determined much of her travel since, taking her to obscure places, “places I never thought I’d be, and I’ve been directed to ancient old stores in back alleys by knowledgeable taxi drivers”.

“I believe they say something about the culture that’s produced them, so you get what I call a cultural quotient, you get something that’s coming in that’s nothing to do with me.”

Watson continues to teach at the Queensland College of Art in Brisbane. Regardless of whether she’s in her studio, work is under way: priming canvases, investigating potential materials, sourcing materials (Japanese pigments lately).

“There’s always something going on but it’s not necessarily putting brush to canvas every day. Sometimes they’re written down as notes or sketches. By the time I’ve got a canvas ready I know exactly what I’m going to paint and … there’s not much room for mistakes! It’s very, very simple and it has to come out right the first time.”

She enjoys her work and sees teaching as an art in itself. “I never saw teaching as a chore. I think it is very good that art students are taught by teachers who have a good experience of art as a professional practice. They ask me about New York and about how much commission you pay, they ask me a million things but I can answer – that’s the important thing.

“I think it’s important to communicate about what you do,” she says. “I’m not a fan of the artist who’ll never speak to anyone.”

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Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy is at Heide until March 4.

An Art talk with Dr Chris McAuliffe will be held at Heide on November 18 at 2pm. Cinema Nova will screen Dogs in Space, introduced by director Richard Lowenstein, on November 19 at 3.30pm and 3.50pm (tickets include admission to the exhibition at Heide).

Pictured: Jenny Watson, ‘Flower Child’ (1992-3) Photography: Carl Warner