Ret­ro­spec­tive of Jen­ny Wat­son’s prim­i­tive style strikes a chord

Kerrie O'Brien
The Age, 10 November 2017
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.” __________________________________________ 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’ (19923) Pho­tog­ra­phy: Carl Warner
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