New York

Jenny Watson

Annina Nosei Gallery

When artists paint like children should you give them a lollipops or put them over your knee? Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and the rest of the Blaue Reiter group thought they could tap some primal impulse by making art like children (and other primitives), but in retrospect all their blather about “naivete” and “innocence” seems like the by-product of some regressive psychodrama. Can the same be said of Jenny Watson? The work in her new show, “paintings with bowler hats and bottles,” is certainly more “childlike” than ever. She likes to paint little girls, little boys, orange cats, and blue horses. She renders them so flatly that they’re no more subtantial than stick figures. And rather than paint on canvas (like grown-up artists), she uses materials that could easily be leftovers from mom’s sewing box: taffeta, corduroy, velvet, buttons, ribbon, and haberdashery.

In Standing Man (all works 1992), Watson outlines a man’s figure on a background of sky-blue velvet. The drawing is “awkward”: his feet splay out unnaturally to the side; his arms terminate in what amounts to a jagged shorthand for hands; he might or might not have a wandering eye. There is no pretense of creating a fictive space: the background velvet is just velvet, the black outlines of the figure filled in like a coloring book. She uses a “wrong” color, an orange too intense to be flesh, but generally stays within the lines. The figure is nude and the view full-frontal, except for a “real” black bowler hat that hangs conveniently in front of his crotch, making an explicit visual pun: the man must have a hard-on that holds up the hat. But isn’t that rather a dirty joke for a child?

Watson’s “childishness” has nothing to do with regaining the lost paradise of youthful innocence or naiveté. If a Watson painting could converse with a work of the Blaue Reiter, it would say: “not only is it pathetic to think you can be childlike, but let me tell you, childhood is not as innocent as you think.” while there is a suggestion of carnal knowledge in the mostly happy bowler-hat paintings (they all have hats attached to them), in the bottle paintings (they all have empty bottles attached to them) the childhood-equals-innocence myth is blown apart. Hula Hoop is ostensibly the most guileless of these bottle paintings—a girl swings her hips in a red hula hoop against a background of violet taffeta. It may seem innocent enough, but attached to the painting with a piece of ribbon is a bottle with the words, “this painting might shock people” scrawled on it. What’s so shocking? Is it that the hula hoop exercises certain muscles that happen to be put to good use in sex? Other paintings in the bottle series, such as School Boy with an Icy Pole (not every popsicle is phallic, but . . . ), also suggest that childhood is hardly presexual. Walking Wounded, which shows a young girl mysteriously bleeding from one eye, looks like one of those pictures that shrinks have child abuse victims draw when they can’t express their traumas verbally. It is this sense of sexuality, sometimes sinister and sometimes not, that saves Watson’s paintings from repeating the same-old expressionist-song-and-dance.

Keith Seward