Sydney Morning Herald Column

Jenny Watson

Published September 8, 2017
Jenny Watson, '60s Dolly Bird' (2014)

One imagines teachers at the Julian Ashton Art School sending their pupils across the road to the Museum of Contemporary Art, to see Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy. For the traditionally-minded it’s an object lesson in how not to make art. If there are any cynics among those students, they might say: “…nevertheless, it seems a lot easier than spending years drawing from a life model.”
As a person with a healthy but not slavish respect for tradition, Jenny Watson brings out my inner Ashtonite. Some would say I have a blind spot when it comes to her work, but I’d argue it’s more a question of wishing to find a single convincing argument on behalf of paintings that generate so much shallow adoration.
In preparation for an article in 1994 I read everything that had been published on Watson and found that her two great assets in the eyes of most writers were her professionalism and her narcissicism. The former meant she had a lot of shows in quick succession, the latter referred to her well-documented self-obsession. I’m still not clear why either of these factors should be considered a virtue. It’s the quality of exhibitions that counts, not the quantity. As for narcissism, it’s best viewed as a psychopathology not an endearing personality trait. All artists (perhaps all creative people) are narcissists to some extent, but most are able to find subjects outside of themselves.
In her catalogue essay for this exhibition, curator Anna Davis wisely steers clear of the ‘professionalism and narcissism’ angle, sticking to the facts of Watson’s career.
One depressing fact is that Watson, now in her mid-60s, is still looking back nostalgically on the Melbourne club scene of the late 1970s. She’s still making paintings in which she adopts the alter ego of a little girl. In all these years she doesn’t seem to have developed the smallest faculty for self-criticism. On the contrary, every circumstance of her life is considered worthy subject matter, and every painting a success.

Jenny Watson, 'Alice in Tokyo' (1984)
Jenny Watson, ‘Alice in Tokyo’ (1984)

She has dealt with most of the age-old problems of painting by simply ignoring them. Her drawing is deliberately deskilled and child-like, her compositions usually consist of little more than a figure in space. There is no gradation of light or shade, modelling of forms, definition of contours, and so on. There is no revision.
Watson says she has “completely lost the habit of reworking the image. I ceased revising and recapitulating. So all my images are direct, like first impressions.”
To the artist and her admirers, this is OK, because she’s making “Conceptual Art”, or “Post-conceptual paintings”. It’s an ambit claim that defuses all potential criticism. What do you mean my drawing sucks? It’s deliberately bad, which means it’s a success.
The artist who never revises their work would have to be a genius to get it right every time. (We know from X-rays that Leonardo da Vinci made plenty of changes when painting the Mona Lisa.) With Watson the emphasis is not on individual pictures but the persona of the artist herself. The paintings are no more than outward manifestations of what is described in the catalogue as “an experiment in selfhood.”
Part of the Watson myth is that because she started out painting in a photo-realist style this means she has all the skills in the cupboard if she chooses to use them. When she discarded this approach in favour of a much rougher type of painting it was hailed as progress, but while most artists spend years making such a transition Watson did it in the blink of an eye.
Jenny Watson, 'Yellow Painting: John' (1974)
Jenny Watson, ‘Yellow Painting: John’ (1974)

Her early, realistic portraits, White Painting: Margaret (1975) and Yellow Painting: John (1974), place a single life-sized figure against a monochrome backdrop. It’s a spoof on fashionable hard-edged abstraction, putting a human being where Barnett Newman would have put a zip. Her small portraits of the Boys Next Door and the Go-Betweens have acquired a cultish appeal as those bands have taken on ‘legendary’ status, but they are modest, tentative works.
Jenny Watson's Go-Betweens portraits, 'Robert, Linda, Grant' (1981)
Jenny Watson’s Go-Betweens portraits, ‘Robert, Linda, Grant’ (1981)

What’s appealing about all these early paintings is the earnestness of the artist’s attempts to capture the face and form of her subjects. They are not slick, ultra-skilful images, but hard-won, partial successes. However, it’s better to see an artist who is striving and not quite succeeding, rather than one who has come to believe she can do no wrong.
When Watson began painting stick figures on raw linen, glueing sequins and phoney horse tails onto the picture, using patterned fabrics as as a support, and adding small hand-written canvases with fragments of stories, her career moved onto another plane. She’d write her signature on a large scale, and add a copyright symbol, as a proud assertion of her own importance.
The pictures were all vaguely autobiographical, as in The Key Painting (1987), which features a small, prone self-portrait in a black dress, and a lot of deliberately clumsy writing: “I did not use a needle, I did drink a lot…” Letters such as ‘n’ were written backwards, with capitals inserted in odd places.
Jenny Watson, 'The Key Painting' (1987)
Jenny Watson, ‘The Key Painting’ (1987)

When an artist such as Ken Whisson aimed to get away from “good technique”, he produced complex compositions and images that teetered on the brink of abstraction. When Watson did the same the imagery is banal, and the awkward confessional writing comes across as an affectation. There’s a self-consciousness in these pictures that is antithetical to the way any child sees the world.
Likewise, the small cut-out images, fake pearls, sequins, stars and tiny metal insignia pasted all over Watson’s pictures, add nothing to their impact or interpretation. They are as meaningful as the sprinkles of coconut on a lamington.
Like Tracey Emin, Watson is often viewed as an artist who addresses the trials and traumas of young women. Alas, this is no guarantee of excellence in art, and it may not even be true. When Louise Neri asks in a catalogue interview, in reference to the confessional works of the 1980s: “Were you using paintings as a way of mastering your pain?”, Watson replies: “My concern at this time was whether my career would develop outside of Australia.”
Such suffering! Imagine the terrible anxiety of wondering if you’ll ever get a show in New York. It’s a shocking first-world problem.
Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy
Museum of Contemporary Art
5 July – 2 October, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September, 2017