Oliver Watts, ‘Kafka’s Painter’

Oliver Watts is a Sydney-based artist whose work comments on social values, politics, religion and the art world.

Watts uses iconic stories or characters, historical events, and images from the past as a vehicle for exploring the role art, and the artist, plays in contemporary society. Kafka’s Painter is Watt’s most recent solo exhibition being held at Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne. The exhibition pursues his interest of art’s place in society, visual language, and its voice. The exhibition is built around the character of Titorelli, an artist and official court painter, in Franz Kafka’s 1924 novel The Trial.

Landscape I By Oliver Watts

Landscape I, 2011, acrylic on cavanas

 The exhibition presents a suite of paintings that focuses on Titorelli’s role in the narrative as someone who knows all the court’s secrets because of “his experience painting portraits has taught him all the secret dealings of the court”, Watts explains. The works in Kafka’s Painter are something of a story board, re-creating scenes from the original story. The vignettes present the court artist moving between the disparate worlds of art and law as he advises the novel’s central character throughout a court case. In painting these scenes, Watts interrogates the baggage and responsibility of an artist and that of his art.

Included in the exhibition are 3 landscape paintings that, in the story, Titorelli has stored under his bed. The subject matter of these paintings is borne entirely of Watts’ imagination and interpretation of Titorelli who he sees as being “quite a straight talker, more bureaucratic than artist”. The seemingly banal landscapes are painted with a conscious self-reference. They are the paintings of a fictional artist, based on the imagination and interpretation of an artist some 80 years after the story. Seductive in their rendering, the paintings challenge the notions of creativity and originality.

Kafka's Painter by Oliver Watts

2. Kafka’s Painter, 2011, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Helen Gory Galerie.

Painted in high acrylics, the picture surfaces in Watts’ work can appear flat on first glance. However, the languid and gestural brush strokes reveal a depth and movement to their composition; each mark and colour is an important part of the image’s overall composition and provides something of a theatrical aesthetic.

From a technical point of view, Watts enjoys the “tension of whether the works are actually genre pieces in a traditional style or theatrical pieces” – a tension that points to the frameworks in which art and artists must practice. In Kafka’s Painter, Watts presents an exhibition which has a technical and conceptual flair. On the one hand, the paintings are fluid in their narrative and easily read, leading viewers on a journey through the eyes of the artist. On the other hand, there are deep questions which Watts examines, such as the “duty of the artist to create an art that is connected to social structures, what is expected”. While the philosophical questions posed by Watts could be easily dismissed as overly dense and inaccessible, his gestural and seductive technique allows for an open and ongoing dialogue and consideration.

Helen Gory Galerie
February 8 to March 3, 2012

1. Landscape I, 2011, acrylic on canvas
2. Kafka’s Painter, 2011, acrylic on canvas
3. Wig, 2011, acrylic on canvas (image on home page of Art Almanac)

Courtesy the artist and Helen Gory Galerie, Melbourne.