A Q&A with Jenny Watson
On the occasion of her exhibition A Horses Tale
Questions by Nick Hackworth
Q: The exhibition is called A Horses Tale. Horses feature often in your work as do both horses’ tails and pony tails. What, do these subjects mean to you and why represent the horses’ and the pony tails in the same way – with fake horses’ tails?
A: I have worked with attachments to paintings for some time. Horses have been a part of my life since I was a teenager, and got involved in dressage riding in the 1980s. I came across false horses tails through competing in riding competitions and was drawn to them as a surreal object that suggested possibilities for incorporation into my work.
Q: These paintings are made on bolts of fabric, cut at the length that would be required to make a dress for you. What, for you, is the significance of this measurement?
A: For me it is reminiscent of Saturday afternoons as a teenager, when girls made dresses, often to wear that night, in the suburban context I grew up in, it is definitely a kind of nostalgia.
Q: During the 1980’s your work changed dramatically when you moved on from a realist painting style and began working in your now distinctive naïve and childlike manner. You described that transition in this way: “I turned from the observation of the outside world to the recording of an inner space… I wanted to shatter the techniques I had learnt to let a random uncontrollableness take hold of the work”. What caused the shift? What did you learn and what did your work gain from the development of a naïve style and the abandonment of your previously tight, realist style?
A: I became interested in working with text, image and found objects in an advanced way. I kept a diary and started using text more directly in the early 80s, as a follow-on from the prior incorporation text into the surface of the painting. I took something that was totally non-art; how we think and feel and process things in our mind, to do with the unconscious. Women in particular feel they constantly have an internal dialogue that’s going that is nothing to do with their daily routine, something like a very developed fantasy life. I decided to use that as the subject of some of my text panels. Some of them are very banal, some of them are like shopping lists or single sentence expressions. But the more developed ones that are like little stories, that was a delving into the unconscious. And I felt that was something that hadn’t been used in the same way before. If we say that surrealism looks at dreamlike states and the unconscious – yes, but that was imagery. It wasn’t a slab of text of a woman doing a pile up of fifty dishes and thinking about wanting a new dress. So by almost accident, you could almost say it was a creative accident, I started to put that in. And that changed the work in a big way.
Q: In a recent review the critic Wes Hill, reflecting on the effect of this shift from realist imagery to naively rendered, symbolic imagery, wrote: “Jenny Watson’s work revealed itself less as a triumph of feminist politics than of anti-essentialism.” How do you feel about this statement? Do you feel your work articulates a feminist perspective?
A: I don't know if this answers your question, however, as you would know, Germaine Greer published the Female Eunuch in 1970, and this had a profound impact in Australia. I was lucky enough to meet Lucy R Lippard in 1975 when she visited Australia and show her around Melbourne. My friend Lesley Dumbrell established the Women’s Art Register that year. I met members of Lucy Lippard’s circle on a subsequent trip to New York, and was exposed to artists like Jo Baer, Joan Semmel, Judy Chicago, Joyce Kozloff, Sylvia Sleigh, Joan Brown, Alice Neel, Joan Snyder, and others. The critical mass of excellent women artists gave me the confidence to continue. As for my recent work it is connected back to that trajectory. I consider my work to be post-conceptual, made possible in the wake of conceptualism. What has happened more recently, is that people are very interested in the way that women artists express themselves so there’s an interest in the history of that.
Q: An origin myth that journalists like to recount about your genesis as an artist revolves around your presence on the Melbourne punk scene in the 1970’s and its influence on your work. How influential has music and the music scene, especially punk, been on your work? How much fun was the punk scene back then?
A: I have been diligently exhibiting as an artist since 1972, but I became interested in the way Punk gave any one the licence to start a band, make clothes or paint. It redefined who could be creative. I was involved in an artist run space. They were heady times. And I think there were a lot of people who definitely didn’t want to end up like their parents in suburban Melbourne. It was cheap and a lot of fun, significant figures emerged from that cultural moment. Famously, Nick Cave became one of these figures who most defined this era.
Q: This body of paintings was made while you were on a Residency at the American Academy in Rome earlier this year. The text that accompanies Girl from the back, 2019 reads “Rome. I had two months to explore it”. What did you find?
A: I was recipient of the Mordant Family / Australia Council Affiliated Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome It was great to be part of a community of scholars, and taking studio visits with other artists. They organise guided tours, I found one on Baroque Libraries of the Campus Martius. In fact Mary Beard joined near the end where she took a group on a guided tour of the Roman Forum. I enjoyed the talks, walking in adjacent neighborhoods, and the chance to find new fabrics for future work, specifically men’s woolen suit fabric and other habidashery items.
Q: What do you most like about painting?
A: I particularly enjoy the solitary quiet decision making of studio time. Also the way that inspirational things present themselves to me in a completely random fashion. I’m not ever looking for anything special, that seems to just happen. I like to pull something up from memory. So that might be myself as an eleven year old, or an older relative on a walking frame, or it might be a horse that was very special to me. I deliberately mine my personal past to get imagery that I hope will resonate with other people. And it seems to. But I think as an artist being able to express that is probably pretty special. However I don’t think the process is particularly special. I think every human being on the planet has those moments of poignancy.