Jenny Watson, The Key Painting, 1987, oil and gouache on cotton, 48 3/8 x 70 7/8".

Jenny Watson, The Key Painting, 1987, oil and gouache on cotton, 48 3/8 x 70 7/8".

Jenny Watson

Jenny Watson, The Key Painting, 1987, oil and gouache on cotton, 48 3/8 x 70 7/8".

Since her first solo show in Melbourne in 1973, Jenny Watson has been one of Australia’s most notable expressionist painters, able to invest images and text with psychobiographical vitality. “Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy” was the most comprehensive survey of the artist’s work to date, including more than one hundred drawings, prints, and paintings with collage and mixed media from the 1970s to the present. Assembled with intelligence and empathy by curator Anna Davis, the show traced the development of Watson’s distinctive idiom through all its phases. 

Watson’s early works show a young artist honing techniques and soaking up various artistic trends. She started with large Photorealist paintings such as Brown Horse with Yellow/Green Headband, 1973, which depicts a glossy-coated thoroughbred with George Stubbs–like precision. From the mid- to late ’70s her work responded to a Melbourne artistic milieu encompassing punk and postpunk music, late modern abstraction, cool Conceptualism, and Pop. A Painted Page 1: Twiggy by Richard Avedon (for Paul Taylor), 1979, condenses all these tendencies and has become an icon of Australian postmodernism. Using oils, Watson replicated a magazine photograph of the model Twiggy on an intrusive grid, situating the image in a sludge-like field of lime-green impasto.

Having engaged in this debunking of painterly immediacy and the inclinations of Expressionism, Watson began to create works possessed of both. Starting in the early 1980s, she forged an autobiographical, confessional oeuvre mining memories, fantasies, and experiences of childhood, young womanhood, and beyond. She explored these themes by combining naive figuration, improvisational brushwork, inventive color combinations, and childish painted text. In The Key Painting, 1987, crudely formed sentences press a prone female figure toward the lower edge of the canvas. Dressed in the all-black uniform of punk, she sports a flowing mane of bottle-red hair. These elements are enlivened by smears of magenta pigment. The words in the painting may be reflections on the artist’s life in ’70s Melbourne, with phrases such as I DID DRINK ALOT. I DID WAKE UP IN STRANGE PLACES. I DID WAKE UP IN A GUTTER WITH BLOOD ON MY FACE. . . . I DID SLEEP ALOT. I DID CRY ALOT. But any woman who has kicked against the traces of parental control in her youth might identify with this tragicomic recollection.

Girls and women with long orange hair form part of a recurring cast of self-portraits that populate Watson’s works. Others include little girls wearing homemade dresses and Mary Jane shoes (Self Portrait as a Little Girl, 1987; Girl in a Blindfold, 2016) and fictional avatars such as Alice in Wonderland, Ophelia, and Scarlett O’Hara. The show also contained many expressions of Watson’s well-known devotion to horses, which figure as another vehicle of self-portraiture. Popular culture regularly caricatures the girl-horse identification as a psychological prop for female puberty. In He’ll Be My Mirror, 2013, Watson at once affirms and deflates the archetype of the horse-crazy girl-woman. She depicts herself as a Narcissus captivated by her mirror image reflected in the coat of an equine companion. The loosely sketched brushstrokes in vibrant blues and greens that surround her hint at a bucolic fantasy. Yet this romance has a dark side. The apparition on the horse’s flank, encircled by sequins that recall lights around a theater mirror, is far from girlhood. The age-ravaged face caked with cosmetics recalls a fading Sunset Boulevard movie star mourning her lost magnetism. With characteristic knowingness, Watson injects her version of expressionism with an astringent dose of comic grit.

Toni Ross