Jen­ny Wat­son’s The Fab­ric of Fantasy’

Patrick Hartigan
The Saturday Paper, Edition No. 167, July 29 – August 4, 2017
At her best, Jen­ny Wat­son is less a painter of things than a gen­er­a­tor of ener­gy. Her works aren’t about their con­tent so much as the field of time through which that con­tent briefly rides. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly the case when her com­po­si­tions lose their cen­tral­i­ty, when the shapes, smears and drawn rever­ies drift to the edges of the can­vas, some­what in the man­ner of toys in a child’s bath. Paint­ings are made sub­stan­tial and giv­en ener­gy in mys­te­ri­ous ways, and while pic­to­r­i­al tropes and nar­ra­tives grab our super­fi­cial atten­tion, it’s what can’t be so eas­i­ly snatched by the eye – the forces of cir­cu­la­tion and touch lying beyond the instant­ly vis­i­ble – that often draws us in and keeps us look­ing. It’s these rea­sons, as much as the vicis­si­tudes of life and career, that make Watson’s sur­vey exhi­bi­tion The Fab­ric of Fan­ta­sy at the Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art, on until Octo­ber 2, so pleasing. 
SPOTLIT ONBLACK WALL, A COM­PI­LA­TION OF PUNK CLAS­SICS PLAY­ING IN THE ROOM, THE BRO­KEN NAR­RA­TIVES OF THESE WORKS LEAP FOR­WARD LIKE THE EYES OF FEL­LOW DEBAUCHEES ONDANCE FLOOR
The exhi­bi­tion cli­max­es around a group of very large can­vas­es from the late 1980s. The appeal of these works lies as much in their abrupt and fugi­tive total­i­ties as it does in the strange­ness of detail form­ing them. They speak of the place Wat­son has in Aus­tralian art and the unique cor­ralling of text, fem­i­nism and psy­cho­analy­sis in her work. Self Por­trait as a Nar­cot­ic (1989) has its alpha­bet soup and anti-hero­ine drown­ing in a syringe amid what seems to be the tacky, yel­low after­math of an egg ambush. Spring (1989), in turn, bears a hue more of earth and blood, the washy and blotchy pur­chase of its ground some­where between parch­ment and pathol­o­gy slide. A horse and rid­er – windswept tail of one echo­ing the hair of the oth­er – emerge through these mut­ed cur­rents in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of ear­ly film mon­tage. The play­ful­ly han­dled let­ters of the title, a non­sen­si­cal bou­quet of flow­ers above the horse’s head, and a show­er of cop­per-coloured beads and small pieces of paper, includ­ing a tiny news­pa­per clas­si­fied for some­one named Lucy, punc­tu­ate and enliv­en this palimpsest. The clip­ping reads: Mar­ried and set­tled in Rush­worth in the 1850s … Among her trea­sures, Lucy still has a wed­ding dress worn by one of her grand­moth­ers and her own ring made from Rush­worth gold.” No longer wear­ing or cher­ish­ing her wed­ding dress, the fab­ric Lucy now clings to is absolute­ly alive. Watson’s great­est skill as a painter – pre­sum­ably in her oth­er life as a dres­sage rid­er, too – seems to be in the way her touch­es, move­ments and frag­ments tame their very large sup­ports while always remain­ing sen­si­tive to the moment of con­tact between fab­ric and paint­ed stra­ta. Recall­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with John Cage, the painter Philip Gus­ton described the process of sub­mit­ting to a paint­ing in terms of vacat­ing the stu­dio: When you start work­ing, every­body is in your stu­dio – the past, your friends, ene­mies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you con­tin­ue paint­ing, they start leav­ing, one by one, and you are left com­plete­ly alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.” Accord­ing to Gus­ton, a kind of third hand” took over at that moment of sur­ren­der. Despite being a self-por­traitist of sorts – many of her paint­ings appear as pages from a diary or pho­tographs from a fam­i­ly album – Wat­son under­stands this. Her work reveals that painter­ly luck” is that which lies beyond her­self. Or as she puts it: It’s not about me – it’s not the world of Jen­ny [but] the pos­si­bil­i­ties of being that are expressed.” Death of a Horse (1990) depicts its decay­ing sub­ject upturned and float­ing among let­ters, bro­ken words and col­laged frag­ments. The way these ele­ments fall across the canvas’s grub­by sur­face gives the look of a half-com­plet­ed page – foxed and long for­got­ten – from a colour­ing book. Lan­guage in this pic­ture is not the learnt mech­a­nism through which to pre­scribe mean­ing so much as a means by which the ground below lan­guage can be bro­ken and mined for hid­den reserves and rich­es. Here, per­haps, it’s worth not­ing the impact psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic thought had on Wat­son in the 1980s and the dream jour­nal” she start­ed keep­ing. There’s dark­ness and unease in the room of works in which Death of a Horse hangs, or rather drops. The tran­si­tion from more twee cohorts in neigh­bour­ing gal­leries remind­ed me of the descent towards Goya’s show of hor­rors at the Pra­do in Madrid. The way Wat­son acti­vates these par­tic­u­lar fab­rics, with parched and patchy fields of paint, also brought to mind the ear­ly sur­faces and debauched dra­mas of Fran­cis Bacon. Return­ing to those sur­round­ing rooms, Watson’s work seems to suf­fer when the enig­mas of paint­ing, lan­guage and expe­ri­ence are approached too con­scious­ly. Here I’m think­ing of the works emerg­ing from the ear­ly 1990s, exhib­it­ed in the Aus­tralian pavil­ion at the 1993 Venice Bien­nale, in which she sep­a­rat­ed image and text into sep­a­rate pan­els, lat­er adding objects, too. The premise of these works con­cerns what Wat­son calls glitch­es between the con­scious and uncon­scious” – name­ly the states of dis­trac­tion and inat­ten­tion we bring to art. For me this exer­cise in unpack­ing under­mines Watson’s inter­ests; the ges­ture comes across as con­trived, its sep­a­ra­tion of nev­er clear­ly delin­eat­ed fields only dulling the forces and ten­sions found in her paint­ings. The mul­ti­far­i­ous works seem to link back to her asso­ci­a­tion with con­cep­tu­al art modes in the 1970s. Wat­son, who was born in Mel­bourne and now lives in Bris­bane, and who has been exhibit­ing since 1973, described her moment of depar­ture from more sys­tem­at­ic prac­tices of pulling lan­guage and mean­ing apart as tak­ing the plunge into pri­vate and for­bid­den ter­ri­to­ry”. If con­cep­tu­al art pro­duced in Wat­son a healthy respect for dis­trac­tion, it was the Mel­bourne punk scene of the late 1970s and 80s that gave her the oppor­tu­ni­ty to branch away. Putting a grenade in my work­ing prac­tice,” is how she described The Mad Room (1987), a col­lec­tion of text paint­ings high­light­ing this anar­chic turn. Spotlit on a black wall, a com­pi­la­tion of local punk clas­sics play­ing in the room, the bro­ken nar­ra­tives of these works leap for­ward like the eyes of fel­low debauchees on a dance floor. On some of these sur­faces I felt sure I was look­ing at bile. Else­where, The Key Paint­ing (1987) pro­vides the scram­bled ledger of some­one very hun­gover, its fig­ure lying comatose across the scaf­fold of a pur­ple spray-paint­ed sig­na­ture: I did not use a nee­dle; I did drink a lot; I did wake up in strange places; I did stay out all night; I did wake up in the gut­ter with blood on my face; I did sleep a lot; I did cry a lot.” Wat­son has point­ed out that as a painter and elder she was large­ly an observ­er in the punk world”. This con­curs with a split not only in the works from the 1990s but across her oeu­vre, one speak­ing to self-por­trait paint­ing more gen­er­al­ly: the artist as both the peered-upon pro­tag­o­nist and mate­r­i­al agi­ta­tor of that protagonist’s stage. For this spec­ta­tor, it was the all-per­vad­ing force fields, those works in which paint meets a sheet and taps into a reser­voir of ener­gies unseen, which stole the show. This arti­cle was first pub­lished in the print edi­tion of The Sat­ur­day Paper on Jul 28, 2017 as Ele­men­tal, my dear Watson”. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Anna Kučera
Filter

DANIEL CROOKS: BOUND­ARY CONDITIONS

Bound­ary Con­di­tions is an ambi­tious video work that seam­less­ly weaves togeth­er an alter­nate world […]

Read More

ANGEL­I­CA MESI­TI: STILL LIFE

In Still Life, imag­i­na­tion and empir­i­cal obser­va­tion unite in con­tem­pla­tion of life’s inter­con­nect­ed­ness. Exquisite […]

Read More

AMRI­TA HEPI: THE ANGUIL­LA PURSUIT

Agency Projects and Com­pos­ite: Mov­ing Image Agency & Media Bank have part­nered to present an […]

Read More

CAL­LUM MOR­TON: CITY LIGHTS

Cal­lum Mor­ton’s newest pub­lic art­work,​‘City Lights’, launch­es on the back façade of the […]

Read More

LAU­REN BRIN­CAT: TUT­TI PRESTO FFF

Oscil­lat­ing between sound, per­for­mance and chore­og­ra­phy, Lau­ren Brincat’s live sculp­ture, Tut­ti Presto FFF, reinterprets […]

Read More

WAR­WICK THORN­TON: EVER PRESENT: First Peo­ples Art of Australia

War­wick Thorn­ton has been includ­ed in Ever Present: First Peo­ples Art of Aus­tralia: an […]

Read More

JAN NEL­SON: LIS­TEN­ING TO MUSIC PLAYED BACKWARDS

Lis­ten­ing to Music Played Back­wards: Recent Acqui­si­tions cel­e­brates works in the Hei­de col­lec­tion acquired […]

Read More

DANIEL CROOKS: STRUC­TURED LIGHT

Daniel Crooks has been com­mis­sioned to illu­mi­nate the Nation­al Gallery’s façade for the 202 […]

Read More

SHAUN GLAD­WELL: NEW AUS­TRALIAN PRINTMAKING

New Aus­tralian Print­mak­ing launch­es ground­break­ing new work cre­at­ed by Shaun Glad­well, Megan Cope, Tim […]

Read More

WAR­WICK THORN­TON: METH KEL­LYPHO­TO 2022

PHO­TO 2022 and Anna Schwartz Gallery will present Meth Kel­ly by War­wick Thorn­ton for […]

Read More

ROSE NOLAN: PAR­LOUR GAMESANNA SCHWARTZ GALLERY

Rose Nolan Big Words (Not Mine) – Tran­scend the pover­ty of par­tial vision (floor […]

Read More

Lau­ren Brin­cat: Con­ver­sa­tions on Shad­ow Architecture’

Lau­ren Brin­cat is includ­ed in Con­ver­sa­tions on Shad­ow Archi­tec­ture, a project curat­ed by Ineke Dane […]

Read More

Shaun Glad­well: 2022 Ade­laide Bien­ni­al of Aus­tralian Art: Free/​State

Shaun Glad­well has been select­ed along with 25 lead­ing Aus­tralian con­tem­po­rary artists to participate […]

Read More

Cal­lum Mor­ton & Mar­co Fusina­to: All That Was Sol­id Melts’ at Auck­land Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

All That Was Sol­id Melts takes us on a jour­ney from iso­la­tion through the multiple […]

Read More

Daniel Von Sturmer: Time in Mate­r­i­al (RGB)’ at The Cen­tre for Pro­jec­tion Art, Colling­wood Yards

Daniel Von Sturmer’s sin­gle chan­nel video work Time in Mate­r­i­al (RGB), 2019 is presented […]

Read More

Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti: Choose Hap­pi­ness’ Mur­ray Art Muse­um Albury

Hap­pi­ness is by its very nature ephemer­al. Some­times it is a state that we might […]

Read More

GABRIEL­LA MANGANO & SIL­VANA MANGANO: The Oth­er Por­trait, curat­ed by Julie Rrap and Cher­ine Fahd at SCA Gallery

The Oth­er Por­trait brings togeth­er work by artists who have an estab­lished rela­tion­ship to […]

Read More

David Noo­nan: Stage­craft’ cat­a­logue wins MAP­DA 2021 award for Best Small Exhi­bi­tion Catalogue

David Noo­nan: Stage­craft, designed by Ben Cox and pub­lished on the occa­sion of the […]

Read More

Daniel Crooks and Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti: A Sto­ry for the Future’ MAXXI’s First Decade, Fon­dazione MAXXI, Rome, Italy

On the occa­sion of its tenth anniver­sary, MAXXI presents an exhi­bi­tion that has been […]

Read More

Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti: The Musi­cal Brain’ The High Line, New York

Angel­i­ca Mesi­ti is one of four artists includ­ed in The Musi­cal Brain, a video exhibition […]

Read More

Emi­ly Floyd: Edu­ca­tion: Alter­na­tives and the Academy

Edu­ca­tion: Alter­na­tives and The Acad­e­mySpeak­ers: Emi­ly Floyd and Gridthiya Gawee­wong Edu­ca­tion: Alter­na­tives and The […]

Read More

Mar­co Fusina­to: Ter­mi­nal Gui­tar’, Dark Mofo

Ter­mi­nal Gui­tar, Dark Mofo 2021 Mar­co Fusina­to + Mys­tic Eyes (Lisa MacK­in­ney) + Bruce Russell […]

Read More

Amri­ta Hepi: OUT­SIDE INHOT­LINE LAUNCHED

In the lead up to the 2021 Fre­man­tle Bien­nale, Amri­ta Hepi launched an international […]

Read More

John Nixon, Stephen Bram & Rose Nolan, Cook­ing with John’ curat­ed by Amalia Lin­do & Jacque­line Stojanović

Hay­dens, Mel­bourne 10 — 12 More­land Road Brunswick East, 3057 Exhi­bi­tion open­ing: 22 May from  […]

Read More