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Despite its gritty subject matter, Robert Watson’s latest show at Gallery 25 is engaging, thought-provoking and a pleasure to look at. The exhibition features a series of new abstract paintings and 3-D wall pieces, collectively titled Road Gardens, that continues Watson’s investigation of the road which began with his solo exhibition at the Mildura Arts Centre in 2004. Where Watson’s previous exhibition explored the surface of the highway itself, Road Gardens considers the public spaces at the edge of the road.
Watson introduces Road Gardens with a sweeping, ten metre long painting on wallpaper, from his Arts Centre show, that draws the viewer into the gallery, and sets the context for his latest work. The painting begins with a swirl of brown and black brushstrokes that condense into a solid black surface at the opposite end. For Watson, the random marks are a reminder of the origins of the road, its progression from a meandering dirt track to the modern highway. Watson has pinned two earlier paintings, done on long narrow strips of sandpaper, to adjacent walls beneath his new work. Here they act as surrogate highways in relation to the abstract pieces above.
The new paintings in Road Gardens appeal to our sense of touch. Watson’s canvases contain heavily worked surfaces in oil and enamel covered with bumps and ridges. He increases their tactile quality by adding strips of synthetic fabric. As part of the painting process, Watson paints directly onto the gauze-like material, at times lifting it to form bubbles, enhancing the texture and depth of surface. He uses this to excellent effect in several works. In one diptych, the slick oily black paint and glossy bubbles suggest bitumen softened by the summer heat. In other paintings, the textured layers are saturated with warm, earthy tones that have an organic feel to them. They evoke the wild ‘gardens’ of roadside vegetation, rocks and litter, and a sense of both decay and renewal. A wide horizontal stripe of black runs through several paintings, further alluding to Watson’s theme of the landscape in relation to the road.
For me, it is the 3-D works that stand out in Road Gardens. They are beautifully crafted objects made from used inner tube rubber and bits of debris. And although small in size, they pack a solid visual punch. Each work is a dense abstract assemblage of rubber slices fastened to wood with tiny nails. A strip of canvas, torn from one of Watson’s discarded paintings, reads like abraded skin, and is a recurring motif. In one work, a shard of red taillight reflector connects us immediately to the street, suggesting car accidents and injuries.
But as Watson explains, his 3-D constructions also have another more cryptic meaning. ‘The pieces are actually accurate segments of road and sections of blocks corresponding to a map of the city’, he says. The apparently random compositions are in fact carefully thought-out arrangements, representing paths the artist has walked in the city. Each 3-D work then is a map of his urban migrations and a code connecting us to his personal history. In the end, Road Gardens is as much about Watson’s direct experience of the road, as it is about the evolution and consequences of the modern highway.