Jen­ny Watson

Toni Ross
Artforum, November 2017
Since her first solo show in Mel­bourne in 1973, Jen­ny Wat­son has been one of Australia’s most notable expres­sion­ist painters, able to invest images and text with psy­chobi­o­graph­i­cal vital­i­ty. Jen­ny Wat­son: The Fab­ric of Fan­ta­sy” was the most com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of the artist’s work to date, includ­ing more than one hun­dred draw­ings, prints, and paint­ings with col­lage and mixed media from the 1970s to the present. Assem­bled with intel­li­gence and empa­thy by cura­tor Anna Davis, the show traced the devel­op­ment of Watson’s dis­tinc­tive idiom through all its phas­es. Watson’s ear­ly works show a young artist hon­ing tech­niques and soak­ing up var­i­ous artis­tic trends. She start­ed with large Pho­to­re­al­ist paint­ings such as Brown Horse with Yellow/​Green Head­band, 1973, which depicts a glossy-coat­ed thor­ough­bred with George Stubbs – like pre­ci­sion. From the mid- to late 70s her work respond­ed to a Mel­bourne artis­tic milieu encom­pass­ing punk and post­punk music, late mod­ern abstrac­tion, cool Con­cep­tu­al­ism, and Pop. A Paint­ed Page 1: Twig­gy by Richard Ave­don (for Paul Tay­lor), 1979, con­dens­es all these ten­den­cies and has become an icon of Aus­tralian post­mod­ernism. Using oils, Wat­son repli­cat­ed a mag­a­zine pho­to­graph of the mod­el Twig­gy on an intru­sive grid, sit­u­at­ing the image in a sludge-like field of lime-green impas­to. Hav­ing engaged in this debunk­ing of painter­ly imme­di­a­cy and the incli­na­tions of Expres­sion­ism, Wat­son began to cre­ate works pos­sessed of both. Start­ing in the ear­ly 1980s, she forged an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal, con­fes­sion­al oeu­vre min­ing mem­o­ries, fan­tasies, and expe­ri­ences of child­hood, young wom­an­hood, and beyond. She explored these themes by com­bin­ing naïve fig­u­ra­tion, impro­vi­sa­tion­al brush­work, inven­tive col­or com­bi­na­tions, and child­ish paint­ed text. In The Key Paint­ing, 1987, crude­ly formed sen­tences press a prone female fig­ure toward the low­er edge of the can­vas. Dressed in the all-black uni­form of punk, she sports a flow­ing mane of bot­tle-red hair. These ele­ments are enlivened by smears of magen­ta pig­ment. The words in the paint­ing may be reflec­tions on the artist’s life in 70s Mel­bourne, with phras­es such as I DID DRINK ALOT. I DID WAKE UP IN STRANGE PLACES. I DID WAKE UP INGUT­TER WITH BLOOD ON MY FACE.… I DID SLEEP ALOT. I DID CRY ALOT. But any woman who has kicked against the traces of parental con­trol in her youth might iden­ti­fy with this tragi­com­ic rec­ol­lec­tion. Girls and women with long orange hair form part of a recur­ring cast of self-por­traits that pop­u­late Watson’s works. Oth­ers include lit­tle girls wear­ing home­made dress­es and Mary Jane shoes (Self Por­trait as a Lit­tle Girl, 1987; Girl in a Blind­fold, 2016) and fic­tion­al avatars such as Alice in Won­der­land, Ophe­lia, and Scar­lett O’Hara. The show also con­tained many expres­sions of Watson’s well-known devo­tion to hors­es, which fig­ure as anoth­er vehi­cle of self-por­trai­ture. Pop­u­lar cul­ture reg­u­lar­ly car­i­ca­tures the girl-horse iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a psy­cho­log­i­cal prop for female puber­ty. In He’ll Be My Mir­ror, 2013, Wat­son at once affirms and deflates the arche­type of the horse-crazy girl-woman. She depicts her­self as a Nar­cis­sus cap­ti­vat­ed by her mir­ror image reflect­ed in the coat of an equine com­pan­ion. The loose­ly sketched brush­strokes in vibrant blues and greens that sur­round her hint at a bucol­ic fan­ta­sy. Yet this romance has a dark side. The appari­tion on the horse’s flank, encir­cled by sequins that recall lights around a the­ater mir­ror, is far from girl­hood. The age-rav­aged face caked with cos­met­ics recalls a fad­ing Sun­set Boule­vard movie star mourn­ing her lost mag­net­ism. With char­ac­ter­is­tic know­ing­ness, Wat­son injects her ver­sion of expres­sion­ism with an astrin­gent dose of com­ic grit. Pic­tured: Jen­ny Wat­son, The Key Paint­ing, 1987, oil and gouache on cot­ton, 48 3870 78″. Art­fo­rum print­ed Novem­ber 2017 issue.
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