Jenny Watson: Chronicles

Griffith University Art Gallery, Brisbane

Brisbane-based artist Jenny Watson’s recent solo exhibition Jenny Watson: Chronicles at Griffith University Art Gallery (GUAG) brings together over twenty works by one of Australia’s most prolific painters. Building on Griffith Artworks 2005 exhibition Material Evidence: Jenny Watson Works on Fabric 1981-2005, curator Angela Goddard’s exhibition Chronicles provides a succinct and broader overview of Watson’s painting since the mid-1970s until the present. Taking a wider lens to Watson’s career, it highlights key developments in what the artist refers to as her ‘post-conceptual painting’.1

Chronicles spans two spaces. The first space includes a selection of the artist’s most recent work, a series of paintings featuring horses and a young girl depicted in Watson’s characteristic sparse and loose figurative style. Each is painted on pink and scarlet striped French furnishing velvet, with a separate accompanying text panel and a small readymade trinket placed on a shelf. The works are presented against a dramatic backdrop of scarlet red and positioned at the entrance to the main space, so the viewer is compelled to consider them before entering the exhibition and again upon exiting.

Within the main gallery there are no dividing walls, allowing the viewer to draw parallels between individual works and identify the changes in style that signify key developments. This is also reinforced by the chronological hang of the works around the perimeter of the space. The first wall features examples from the 1970s of the artist’s only three series rendered in a heavy oil impasto technique. These commence with House painting: Mont Albert (small version) (1976) and House painting: Mont Albert (large version) (1976-77), followed by three paintings from the painted page series completed over the summer of 1979-80, and ending with the pairing of An original painting (pink + blue) (1979) and An original painting (black +white) (for Nick Cave) (1979). Displayed together on the one wall each series becomes increasingly more visually reductive. They reveal an acute examination of the possible relationships between text and image, in line with the questioning of the nature of art, a central concern for conceptual artists.2

The three remaining series of works in this room share key elements of a new aesthetic direction in Watson’s practice. Specifically a unique gestural style, the incorporation of text unrelated to the figurative motifs, the use of fabrics other than conventional canvas, the inclusion of objects and collage, the use of Watson’s own handwriting, and an almost obsessive fascination with alter egos.3 Considered together these three series reflect an ongoing experimentation with the relationships between text and image, with an intensified interest in feminism and psychoanalysis. A particular standout is Australian artist of the 80s as a Lady and Ophelia (1984). It is the first work hung in the main space that incorporates these qualities. The rich red velvet surface is a reminder of the scarlet walls of the first space. In this way the scarlet operates as a visual device that bookends this momentous change in style that continues to be a feature of Watson’s work.

Despite the number of similarities the four works selected from the 1980s are markedly different from the works that follow. Not only are Watson’s works from the 1980s considerably larger in size, with The Hay Carter (1989) measuring over two metres in height and three meters in width. The text in the later works appears on a separate panel. Through the action of removing the text from these figurative paintings on taffeta and velvet, and positioning the narratives on small coloured boards beside or leaning against the wall below them, Watson pushes the boundary of conceptual painting even further. As Goddard notes Watson is ‘pushing the text from the illusory space of the wall to the viewer’s space’.4

On revisiting Watson’s recent works as one leaves the main space, it is clear that the exhibition has provided an acute insight into the developments that inform them, which is invaluable to appreciating their significance today. Past exhibitions of Watson’s work have explored a number of interesting themes recurrent in her practice. The Australian Centre of Contemporary Art’s (ACCA’s) Jenny Watson: The Woman, The Bottle, The House, The Horse (1991) focused on the autobiographical and narrative elements. Griffith Artworks's Material Evidence: Jenny Watson Works on Fabric 1981-2005 (2005) considered these elements along with Watson’s experimental approach to painting, acknowledging the significant impact of feminism and punk on the development of her practice. The Ian Potter Museum of Art’s Jenny Watson: here there and everywhere (2012) focused on internationalism. Jenny Watson: Chronicles is the first opportunity to trace the development of Watson’s conceptual painting in a single exhibition. This framing of her work reflects an increased interest and understanding of the legacy of conceptual art internationally. The most recent example of which is the Tate Britain’s major show earlier in 2016 Conceptual Art in Britain (1964-1979). The promotional tagline for this exhibition ‘see the works that changed the way we think about art today’ is spot on, perfectly capturing the thinking behind Jenny Watson: Chronicles.

Jenny Watson, Australian artist of the 80’s as a Lady and Ophelia, 1984. Oil on velvet. Collection Roslyn Oxley and Tony Oxley, Sydney. Photograph Carl Warner.

Installation view, Jenny Watson: Chronicles, Griffith University Art Gallery, Queensland College of Art, Brisbane including (left to right): Palomino pony, 2016. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on French furnishing velvet, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, vintage ceramic rabbit on shelf. Collection the artist, Girl in a blindfold, 2016. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on French furnishing velvet, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, vintage china dog on shelf. Collection the artist, The grass is always greener, 2016. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on French furnishing velvet, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, vintage kombi van on shelf. Collection the artist. Photograph Carl Warner.

Jenny Watson, The grass is always greener, 2016. Oil and synthetic polymer paint on French furnishing velvet; synthetic polymer paint on canvas; vintage kombi van on shelf. Collection the artist. Photograph Carl Warner. 

Jenny Watson, House Painting: Mont Albert (small version), 1976. Oil on canvas; House Painting: Mont Albert (large version), 1976-77. Oil on canvas. Mordant Family Collection. Photograph Carl Warner. 

notes: 

1. Watson used this term to describe her work during the artist talk accompanying this exhibition. In the early 1990s Watson framed her work as post-conceptual without using the term in an interview recorded by Ashley Crawford and published in Art and Australia. Artist Talk, Griffith University Art Gallery, 16 July 2016; Ashley Crawford, ‘Jenny Watson’, Art and Australia, Vol.28 No.3, Autumn 1991, pp.344-345.
2. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds), Conceptual Art: a critical anthology, The MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1999, p.xvii.
3. Sally Brand. ‘Close to her heart there is a 60s guitarist’, Material Evidence: Jenny Watson, Griffith Artworks: Brisbane, 2006, p.6.
4. Angela Goddard, Jenny Watson: Chronicles, Griffith Artworks, Brisbane 2016, p.14.