Dr Joseph Brennan speaks with Oliver Watts about the eight works of ‘Sweet is the Swamp’ – fluid and fragmentary paintings soaked in allusion and the symbolism of a key site of Australian significance.
‘The swamp is a strange place between the land and the water,’ Oliver Watts tells me. ‘Sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent – it is a place in a state of flux.’ Drawing together eight large paintings, ‘Sweet is the Swamp’ derives its name from the opening of an Emily Dickinson poem. It takes as its setting the paperbark swamps of Sydney’s Centennial Park – created in the seventies as ‘a misguided attempt to plant a “natural” habitat’.
‘It intrigues me to know if this vision of Sydney was as much due to Nolan and Boyd as it was based on science,’ Watts says. Such historical-artistic intrigue is woven into this show and helped by Watts’ splattered, mosaic-like brushstroke, which has become his signature.
Those familiar with Watts’ work might see the seeds of his latest show in earlier highlights – Self Portrait of the Artist as Ozcore Amateur (2016) and his 2018 Paperbark Swamp works, for example, which he confirms served as precursors. ‘About five years ago, I was playing with various tree types in my painting,’ he explains. ‘In the end, the paperbark became a common motif, not least because I think it suited my painting style. The way the bark is layered and peeling away, fragmented and falling apart, seems to lend itself to the daubing mark that I make – almost like a form of camouflage.’
The swamp is also a site soaked in Australian artistic sensibility. ‘It is the quintessential picaresque Australian image,’ Watts says, ‘from Sydney Long to Nolan, from Boyd to Lin Onus. The way Nolan places figures in the water is always so haunting and evocative. As if the only means of escape for the outlaw is through the outskirts of the known, to the uninhabitable space of the waterlogged.’
Swamps are associated with being bogged, which is perhaps why Watts chose to add sweetness to this series. In his words: ‘to make the works as kind and as compassionate as possible.’ There is a sweet serendipity in learning that the figures are his friends – Elle, gallery manager at Chalk Horse, and Camille, an Artbank colleague – and that the female focus was born of their availability-on-the-day that the scenes were staged in Centennial Park; an aspect of the work Watts welcomes following his last two exhibitions, which ‘were centred on masculinity, often in crisis’.
Art-historical symbolism remains at the surface throughout, however; from lily pads to Baroque water nymphs and accents of the artist’s present painterly approach – allowing fragmentation to ‘lose the figure against the ground a little more’ compared with earlier work, for example, as was also employed as part of his Eryn Jean Norvill 2021 Archibald entry. The result is a pleasurable ripple of recognition at the point of reception and a sensation of Watts’ swamps in constant flux.
‘Allusions slip and slide over each other,’ he says, ‘leaving it up to the audience to react to what borrowings they see. For example, in The Thorn (2021), the original painting comes from the 19th century and is a Daphnis and Chloe painting, which was the original Blue Lagoon story. By replacing Daphnis with another girl, other allusions are generated.’
I like the care Watts takes to de-anchor meaning here and across this show. His ‘slip and slide’ idea evokes, in my own borrowings, Roland Barthes’ conception of meaning in the visual, as an endless chain of floating signifieds – viewers free to choose some connotations and ignore others. Watts offers his viewers this same freedom in ‘Sweet is the Swamp’.
‘What I want,’ he says, ‘is for the paintings to stay as open as possible – as fluid and fragmentary.’ In my view, to continue Dickinson’s opening line: Watts’ swamps are rich ‘with its secrets’; full of flora and some with figures; these diverse and changing bodies of water and work; they imagine and reimagine the icons – natural and painterly – of the Australian landscape, from ancient dreaming to present day.
Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.
THIS IS NO FANTASY
21 July to 7 August 2021