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
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