Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy

Jenny Watson is a leading Australian artist, whose oeuvre spans 40 years. Historically, Watson is perhaps most well known as being the first female artist to represent Australia in a solo presentation at the Venice Biennale in 1993, Rosalie Gascoigne and Peter Booth made a debut together in 1982. Today, she not only maintains a practice with national and international shows alike, but also influences the next generation of art practitioners whilst teaching at the Queensland College of Art, Brisbane.

Curated by Anna Davis, this three-year in the making survey tracks defining factors and influences of Watson’s practice, including Punk, Conceptualism and Feminism. Her practice has consistently been responsive to a personal context. She is well-known for documenting suburban life in Melbourne, and has warm recollections of a childhood, “in a ‘leafy’ eastern suburb… I spent time in the Dandenongs and Box Hill. The suburbs did however seem to stretch on forever and I felt something numbing about that. In the late 1970s, early 80s, Melbourne had a burgeoning art, fashion, music scene.”

Jenny Watson, Sleeping beauty, 2016, synthetic polymer paint, pigment, haberdashery attachments on rabbit skin glue primed Belgian linen. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Perhaps both supported and sent happily off-course by these beginnings in Melbourne, Watson travelled extensively in her adult-life, most notably securing an Australia Council grant to spend time in New York where she met like-minded creative professionals, such as the widely influential feminist Lucy Lippard. This focus on the narratives created or impacted by place is a reoccurring theme in her work and one which has stood the test of time. She explained, “It is illuminating to look back over forty years of practice. It is complicated for me because the imagery is so personal, it is certainly informative, there are some surprises too such as the explorations through colour over time.”

Jenny Watson, White horse with Telescope, 2012, synthetic polymer paint on rabbit skin glue primed cotton. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Queensland Art Gallery|Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

Indeed, the scale of ‘The Fabric of Fantasy’, spanning across the Level 3 galleries at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), allows for an in-depth degree of engagement with Watson’s practice, an appealing project for Davis who felt that while the exhibition preparation was an enthralling process, it was understandably a massive undertaking. In terms of mediating Watson’s practice to the public, Watson, Davis and the curatorial team made the decision that ‘The Fabric of Fantasy’, should be an exhibition made up of rooms.

Jenny Watson, The Pretty Face of Domesticity, 2014, oil and synthetic polymer paint on velvet striped shantung. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Transit, Mechelen

Davis elaborates, “Watson and I did think about this idea of rooms, for instance we’re going to have ‘the Music room’, ‘the Alice Room’ and so on, so we are really looking closely at this thematic method of grouping works in relation to the larger concept of a house. Sections also extend outside of the house structure, and these include ‘Exploding the Grid’, for instance, which is this moment at the end of the 70’s to the early 80s where Watson’s fighting against this single image painting by breaking things up.”

This idea of rooms, returns to the origin of Watson’s practice, to the relationship between public and private, to the inherently confidential act of documenting a moment or a thought, to making this process public and opening up a wider conversation. The curatorial notion of rooms I think will capture this nuance, whilst also critically engaging with Watson’s role in Feminism and the relationship it has to the domestic space.

Jenny Watson, 60s dolly bird, 2014, Japanese pigment tinted gesso and synthetic polymer paint on 10gsm cotton duck. © the artist. Courtesy the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney

Tess Maunder is a writer and curator, currently working between Australia, Asia and the United States.

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
Until 2 October, 2017
Sydney