Galerie Transit, Brussels
6 September –11 October 2009
Gimpel Fils, London
4 September –7 October 2009
by JANET McKENZIE
“Bringing together the work of eight international contemporary artists, Alternative States explores otherworldly, illusory conditions, transformations and marginal spaces. Challenging conventions and hierarchical structures, the works of art included in this exhibition offer symbolic inversions of, parallels to, and remedies for, the normal and real world. Imagining and then revealing other standpoints and subject positions, these artists provide portals to alternative states of being.”1
Watson uses her Australian suburban childhood as a point of departure, creating uncompromising observations of human nature. Family dramas and overheard comments, random place names and lists of food are juxtaposed with childhood daydreams. Not only do the imaginative spaces provide endless inspiration for her work, for Watson they are vital to her survival as an individual. Indeed Alternative States presents a range of strategies that imply the need for a systematic approach to the processing of imagery and ideas in order to cope with all aspects of life in a complex global society. Watson’s work attracted debate and doubt in the 1980s when her style and methods varied. “Described as fickle by some: it was claimed that she is an artist of the zeitgeist, changing her approach unconsciously as the (art) world changes around her. Watson changed colours, from early feminist concerns to working with appropriation and quotation, then changing to a more vigorous style when the trans-avant-garde became the rage. In more recent years the stylistic traits of Watson’s work have stabilized. Early biographical imagery and the use of words have remained, while experimentation of form or style have been replaced by predictable iconography.”2 Watson herself defended her position: “I think that’s what artists do… pick up on the collective unconsciousness.. in terms of style and form and colour and the more formal things.. they anticipate what things are going to look like. So when artists are working on ideas, six months or a year or, in some cases, two or three years later, it looks right”.3
The conceptual art of Jenny Watson uses drawing processes, and materials with personal associations such as fabrics, alluding to memory and veiled experiences from her past, which resonate strongly with a feminist agenda. When she represented Australia at the Venice Biennale in 1993, her naïve style of drawing and painting were criticized for being unaccomplished and unskilled. Her work makes reference to various art movements of the 1970s, which questioned the validity of painting and the art object. Arte Povera, for example, which allowed an unfinished or sketchy appearance, emphasized process not a finished work of art. Art as commodity was seen to epitomise the materialism of the wider world, and therefore the preserve of the bourgeoisie. The use of dress- making fabrics materials such as velvet, taffeta or corduroy as opposed to artist’s canvas or wooden supports liberated traditional feminine pursuits such as sewing to the arena of fine art. The fabrics are not neutral or pretty, indeed they resonate with associations to interior states of mind; they are often slightly sinister, never candid. Yet while the figures appear to possess the straightforward personae of childhood – little boys and girls, orange cats and blue horses - lurking within the imagery is a world that implies sexual metaphor and uncomfortable hidden agendas. Watson’s childlike imagery does not recall innocence or naivety. It combines a range of influences from Pop art, with personalized, autobiographical works to a large body of works on the subject of Alice in Wonderland, (1865) by Lewis Carroll. She imposes images of self, often unwittingly onto her works, including horse pictures and ‘Alice’, a fact that she only conceded some time after the works were made.
I’ve always been interested in language. I read a lot and I like the way words look on a page. I also like song lyrics. I started using language in 1977 with the address on the front of the house paintings and it emerged again at different times, but for the first time that I really consciously used it as essential to the work was with Conversation piece in 1980. Then in Dream Palette I used slabs of text from a dream journal and basically since then the issues of words, slabs of text, the actual look of handwriting itself is integral to the work. It is another layer to the work so that if someone were to look at my work they could say: it’s about painting, it’s about self-portraiture, it’s about psychology, it’s about handwriting, it’s about a sort of personalized signature.4
In her exhibition at Transit, in 2006, Jan Hoet referring to her life-size portrayals of women, observed: “They appear at first sight to be naive illustrations and, superficially at least, look a little like attractive children’s drawings: the simple division of the parts of the anatomy, the rudimentary clothing, including a T-shirt, a somewhat old-fashioned skirt and long socks, the frontal pose in the primary colours, red, yellow, green and blue; and next to them the personal handwritten texts that refer to everyday memories and an anecdotal ritual. Despite this, the familiar response of ‘I could have done that myself’ certainly does not apply here. This work has far too many layers for that; an inner tension that takes psychological hold of the viewer and disarmingly questions him. Even though they are far too harmoniously balanced for this purpose. It is above all somatically that one recognises in them a highly individual personality through a narcissistic awareness of a vulnerable longing for innocence, whose expressiveness is enhanced by a set of colours applied intensively and permeated with light”.5
Watson recalls the debunking that had to be made of fine art in the mid-1980s, before a more authentic form of expression could evolve. The uses of unstretched canvas and commercial paints with a limited life span, were akin to the iconoclastic nature of punk music; they served to clear the air of preconceptions of fine art, allowing the redefinition of language. The feminist movement then exposed and broke down traditional hierarchies in the arts, which had made it impossible, historically, for women to be great artists. The sketchy, almost barbed-wired lines in Tracey Emin’s recent drawings stand for the immediacy of the expression, not a finished work of art. Jenny Watson’s work is sometimes crude and childlike in the immediacy of the drawn line. The methods break barriers where traditional hierarchies in the arts have existed: embroidery, and all sewing methods have belonged firmly in the realm of the decorative arts.
I have a training in the early 1970s, and at that time thinking about art, conceptual art and language, were very important items to come to grips with. So it is.. almost as if I have worked as a filter. Language affected me, but as a woman the way that I then used the text was in a completely expressionistic, diaristic – I see it as a very female way.6
In 1990, at a time when Watson was considered to occupy a radical position in Australian art, she entered and won, a very contemporary artwork in a very conservative art prize, the Portia Geach Memorial Award for women artists. She considered it as a matter of imperative that the gap between traditional figurative art and contemporary ideas and styles, be reduced. Given Watson’s commitment to the feminist movement it was, however, a natural choice. The Award had been established in honour of Portia Geach, a pioneer woman artist and militant feminist, who campaigned for the rights of the housewife. Watson’s involvement in the women’s movement, and her art that took a politicized attitude to a feminist agenda, put her in a strong position; her cheeky, iconoclastic attitude took the remit of the award, as a portrait of a man or woman distinguished in art, science or letters, as a green light to enter a Self-Portrait, which she explained, with customary confidence, “I am the subject, which is a woman distinguished in the arts, science or letters, and I’m also a portrait painter”. With hindsight, it is clear that in fact feminist art, if such a title can be given, was made up of a very great range of work from conceptual to expressionistic. The feminist movement now played a pivotal role in contemporary art.
It was the challenge of the feminist movement, to received truths, which coincided with and gave impetus to the emergence of Postmodernism. Here was a set of negations that led to the overthrow of the certainty, unity and authority that had become the basis of domination by Eurocentric male values. In uncovering the reasons for women being unable to become great artists, they sought to dismantle the hierarchies that existed within the production and appreciation of art for centuries. The feminist movement also enabled other excluded groups to make their presence felt. Traditional art history favoured white male, European artists, and in doing so, relegated women artists and artists from other races and ethnicities to the periphery of culture. As recently as 1984 it was still possible for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to stage the exhibition “International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” showcasing the work of 169 artists. Only 14 were women, which prompted protest and the establishment of the Guerilla Girls. The intervening twenty years has seen the transformation of culture on a particular and global basis.
Over the past ten years, drawing has assumed a pivotal role in defining contemporary culture. With powerful threads running from cave art through nineteenth century academies and salons, drawing has absorbed history and knowledge as artists themselves absorb influences from history, education, research and autobiography. Drawing at the present moment is seen to occupy a position of critical ascendancy. A significant number of artists who have achieved a high profile in their careers have chosen drawing as their primary activity. In practical terms methods of transporting, framing, and installing exhibitions of drawing, have been improved, enabling fragile, awkward or cumbersome works, or works where the scale has been amplified, to be accommodated and shown. At once private and portable, essentially preliminary or diaristic, drawings continue to provide an immediate form of expression, ideally suited to modern life, travel, allowing a greater independence of conventional studio spaces.
Jenny Watson amplifies the scale of sketches and diary works, and asserts the importance of personal experience in art. The inclusion of text, quotations, snatches from films or diary entries, as well as her large, emphatic signature, impress upon the viewer the work’s authorship. It also emphasizes the tactility of the surface, the making, the pride in the work, with echoes of a proud schoolgirl adorning her jotter. The drawn line is a vital part of Watson’s work, in pencil or paint, and on a range of surfaces and in a range of sizes.
Watson has described her working process recently as working, ‘out of a suitcase’, enabling her to combine travel and art practice. Requiring extreme preparation, she explains:
These fabrics were sourced early in 2008 from a friend in Thailand and some I found in Hong Kong. The "watercolor" paper is actually Chinese wrapping paper. The fabrics are thinly glued to make them rollable and foldable. The extra "piece" that I use, whether it be a text panel, a toy, a vintage ceramic or a veil of organza, has to be sourced on the trip. It must be a discovery that is part of the adventure. In this case, walking through a bazaar in the early evening in [Mumbai], many of the sari shops were too orthodox and conservative, with (understandably!) very little "see through" fabric. A guide called Bobby led me to a tiny shop, 4' wide, stacked to the rafters with every kind of fabric length you could imagine. I tentatively investigated one, a pastel silk pashmina, close to the proportions I like to work with. "That's it!" A light bulb went off in my head, and I greedily chose the 8 I would use, having a blueprint of the colour requirements in my mind. The draping of the pieces, the tucking, the sewing, the just plain hanging over the diverse but connected range of images has made a happy resolution to this series of paintings.7
Watson recently described drawing in her art practice, as the first notation, “usually as urgent as scribbling on a telephone pad.” She does not make elaborate studies for paintings, in fact she regards her paintings as large drawings, executed in paint. “The paint is usually squeezed directly onto the brush from the tube – with mixing taking place on the fabric”. She considers her last traditional painting to be Alice in Tokyo, (1984), which won the Gold Medal at the Indian Triennale in 1985. Although she regards it as a ‘drawing in paint’, she points out that it is “filled in”. Painted on hessian, which resembles a rough version of the superior and traditional material, Belgian linen, it incorporates collage in the form of horse’s hair embedded in the paint. Later she made works that used the entire horse’s tail. She reflects, “Since then my work has become very spare, the chosen fabric colour or texture providing the ‘ground’, or a found piece such as a map. I use very little modeling and no over- painting; there is no room for mistakes”. Watson is emphatic in regarding her work in this vein as “Post Conceptual Painting or Drawing”. In her practice she extends the parameters of painting and drawing methods to the point where they collide with each other, “with an occasional return to modeling on beloved subjects such as faces and animals”.8
Her exhibition earlier this year at Anna Schwartz Gallery,9 Melbourne presented sixteen works on Chinese paper and Indian fabric, materials that were sourced on the artist’s travels. The works create “correlations of place, memory and reflection and the fluid non-linear paths these things follow”, “a moment or memory experienced in a distant place”. Galerie Transit in Brussels has been working for over twelve years with Jenny Watson. Their present exhibition is focussed on a selection of early works, supplied from her galleries in New York and Brisbane, together with a series of new water- colour works. Jenny Watson’s work continues to command an international audience engaged by its freshness of execution and the gentle humour and eloquence of its highly individual imagery, recurring motifs and by an ongoing meaningful narrative. The ambiguous and open-ended allusions in her work enable the viewer to partake included in the narrative.
1. Alice Correia, “Alternative States”, Gimpel Fils, London, 2009.
2. Ashley Crawford, “Jenny Watson”, Art and Australia, Sydney, Vol.28, 1990-91, p. 344.
3. Jenny Watson quoted by Crawford, ibid, p.344.
4. Ibid, p.346.
5. See: www.transit.be
6. Crawford, op.cit., p.348.
8. Jenny Watson, “Notes on Drawing”, Letter to author, May, 2009 9 www.annaschwartz.com