Jenny Watson

Jenny Watson is renowned for her style of post-conceptual painting, which combines whimsical images on fabric with panels of text. She modestly describes her forty five-year career as ‘a Melbourne girl makes good story’, but the journey is far from over. Artist Profile spoke to her about the art world, the female perspective and the human condition.

Watson spoke to Laura Couttie in Issue 45 of Artist Profile.

Jenny, you grew up in suburban Melbourne and you have spoken about how that experience hugely influenced your practice. Now you split your time between rural Queensland and Europe. What motivated you to pursue opportunities overseas?
As a graduate in the 1970s I felt that I was at the end of the world and certainly some foray had to be made overseas to feel you were a part of something.

You have been exhibiting overseas for twenty-eight years now. What have you learnt about yourself as a person and an artist from that experience?
I had my first show in Frankfurt in 1990. That was a case of perfect timing. I was certainly ready, and mature enough, to take on the world, and the world seemed ready to take on an unknown Australian woman. It was a huge learning curve. You may be a fairly well-known Australian artist, but in that melting pot you are an absolute nobody, so you have to start again. I found that very good for the ego – having to learn the ropes, having to consider the positions of other artists from other cultures and different points of view.

In 1993 you were the first female artist to represent Australia in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Your exhibition ‘Paintings with Veils and False Tails’ (1992) reflected on the experience of a young woman and the business of being an artist. In Eternal Youth the text panel reads ‘This painting is in the process of being purchased by a museum’, and in Domestication it reads ‘This painting is in the process of being relegated to a back room’. What inspired you to turn the lens back onto the art world?
There is a splitting hairs difference between whether something becomes a very celebrated painting in the history of art or whether it ends up in storage gathering dust. I was probably interested in looking at what happens to art because I’d been working in Europe and that whole process of marketing, promotion, criticism and everything that is necessary to get an artist noticed was so much more acute over there.

Australian art critic Robert Hughes wrote a scathing review of that exhibition. How do you deal with negative reviews?
The day that I read his review I was sitting in a gallery in Cologne. There was an American artist there, and he said, ‘have you seen Time magazine?’ And I said no. He said, ‘When you see it, please remember the important thing is that your name is in Time magazine.’ And they were huge words of wisdom. When you supposedly reach a highpoint of showing your work at the premier art event in the world and you get something like that from a fellow Australian, it’s pretty horrible. However, I’ve gone from strength to strength since then.

In 2017 the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, presented a retrospective survey of your work, ‘Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy’, to widespread critical and popular acclaim. How did it feel to see so much of your work all together?
It was a huge privilege to experience it at that stage, because a lot of artists don’t get that opportunity. You can see how you started, you can see how you developed, you can see possibly the way it’s going and you can see the sidetracks you might have gone down. The morning I went down to Sydney to start hanging the show I was really nervous because I thought there were going to be some that were not up to standard or some that were way too personal that I didn’t want to go out into the public sphere. But as it happened it was perfect. I was happy with every work.

It’s remarkable that your works, even paintings made forty years ago, still feel so relevant. Why do you think this is?
I’ve always held the position that art should somehow be about being human and reflecting the human condition. Concerns of self-hood and how we feel in the world and what aspirations we have and what disappointments we have are completely timeless. I think that’s possibly what people connect to.

Memory plays an important role in your work.
I’m deliberately pinpricking my personal past to get imagery that I hope will resonate with other people. And it seems to. I think as an artist being able to express that is probably pretty special, but I don’t think the process itself is particularly special. I think every human being on the planet has those moments of poignancy.

One of your most well-known works, The Key Painting (1987) (from the ‘Mad Room’ series), was very revealing of a particular feeling and time.
I probably wouldn’t do anything like that these days [laughs]. But those were heady days. Yeah, I had my wild times. But what you realise as you get older is that the wildness is actually in the work. You can have a very wild time in a studio quietly making extraordinary work.

What is so interesting about this work, and your work in general, is that you privilege the female perspective, which has so often been silenced or ignored.
I think you could say that, in general, a lot of artists, when they want to be radical or innovative, they look to art history for a way to do that. What I did – and I didn’t realise how important it was at the time – was I looked to something that was totally non-art, which was how we think and feel and process things in our mind. So to go into what were taboo areas like women squashing their dreams or thinking about things that maybe aren’t discussed in polite conversation – that ended up being a trump card that made my work look quite different compared to others.
Recently I’ve been experiencing a renewed interest. It’s partly to do with the fact that I evolved this women’s personal text very early, in the early 1980s. What has happened over time is that people are more interested in the way that women artists express themselves, so there’s an interest in the history of that.

What does the future hold for you?
I did a show in 2012 called ‘Layerings’, where the works each had two or three layers of fabric. The images were painted on the middle or back fabric, so it had two layers of sheer fabric laying over it. I’m always interested in what paintings are and how you perceive them. I wanted the perception of the painting to be like squinting through a curtain or even a sheer nightie, so it made the act of looking quite perverse. I only made about eight to ten works in this way. On a recent trip I was in Belgium discussing my January 2019 museum show, and we’re going to show four of those works. The curator found them quite fascinating. I might even revisit that process.
That’s an interesting aspect of a long career – you actually get the chance to see what you did and you even say, well I haven’t got as much out of that as I thought I would so I might do some more.

Considering your international success, what keeps bringing you back to Australia?
One of the reasons I didn’t take up residency permanently overseas is because when I got back here and walked out into my little backyard with bare feet I just felt that the possibilities from here were still really good. If you can get your work done here you can take it anywhere.

This article was orginally published in Artist Profile, Issue 45

Six new works and the Patricia paintings
14 April – 13 May, 2023
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

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