Jenny Watson, Dream Palette, 1981, oil, synthetic polymer paint, crayon, pastel, pencil, charcoal. JW Power Collection, University of Sydney, managed by Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased 1986. Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist

Jenny Watson's right to look

Clement Greenberg, writing favourably on Anne Truitt’s work in a 1968 essay, accused her minimalist peers of having overtly “masculine” traits, claiming that artists such as Donald Judd repressed their latent “feminine sensibilities” in an effort to be seen as “aggressively far out.”[1] This uncharacteristic reflection on the macho politics of art in the 1960s reveals a critic grappling with the times, writing at a moment when feminism, along with civil rights activism of a more general kind, were gaining mainstream recognition in the West. In Australia, Greenberg’s formalism had not yet become representative of the old guard, informing instead the National Gallery of Victoria’s The Field exhibition, which Terry Smith cites in his well‑known 1974 essay as a starting point for thinking about Australian art’s “provincialism problem.” A decade later and it would be expansionist rather than reductionist practices that registered the political and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s in Australia. Formalist tendencies, even of the Susan Sontag variety, would morph into the expanded fields of sculpture and performance, as art became aligned with subcultural activities invested in the politics of representation. 

Embroiled in these shifts as they happened, Jenny Watson’s work revealed itself less as a triumph of feminist politics than of anti‑essentialism. So much is evident in Watson’s energising retrospective at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, The Fabric of Fantasy. If Watson’s emergence in the late 1970s—straight into the arms of Paul Taylor’s Popism—was shaped at all by encounters with Lucy Lippard and with the feminist literature of Germaine Greer and Lip magazine, they did not compel her to address “women’s issues” so much as to believe she had the “right to look.” This is what Nicholas Mirzoeff, following Rancière and Derrida, names as the right “to a subjectivity that has the autonomy to arrange the relations of the visible and the sayable.”[2] Enamoured with the punk and new wave scenes, Watson’s work in this late‑1970s period reflects an urge to exert her subjectivity upon a far‑reaching visual terrain, shifting from early photorealist paintings that hinted at formalist procedures (Cyclone Fence with Great Dane, 1972) to a mode journalistic aesthetics. 

Jenny Watson, Great Dane painting
Jenny Watson, Cyclone Fence with Great Dane, 1972, oil and acrylic on ten-ounce cotton duck
Courtesy and © the artist. Photo: Carl Warner

In Douglas Crimp’s original Pictures catalogue essay as well as in early writings by Taylor, this inclination towards the general field of visual culture was still thought of as fundamental to modernism, connected to the male holy trinity of Baudelaire, Duchamp and Warhol as a restless scrutinising of art’s dialectical relationship with the culture industries. Watson’s focus on the ever‑cool art and music scenes of inner‑city Melbourne—appropriating imagery from newspapers, magazines and television—suggests a Pictures Zeitgeist, but her work differs in its distinctive investment in painting rather than photography. Contrasting with the “big, hard‑edge colour field paintings” that were being newly ordained in Australian art museums, Watson must also be understood as going against the anti‑ocular and anti‑painting leanings of much conceptual and feminist art in this period.[3] For those artists well‑versed in the critical traditions of performance and video, figurative painting was about as redundant as Greenberg’s exclusive location of aesthetic experience in the eye.

Written text became increasingly important for Watson as she started self‑consciously orienting her practice around mediated imagery and signs. But throughout the 1980s her work remained anything but anti‑ocular. From her initial use of unadorned cursive handwriting in Dream Palette (1981), many subsequent paintings such as The Key Painting (1987) and 6pm (1992), have featured short, hand‑painted narratives or obtuse statements—if not within the frame of a work, in the manner of a diptych. Such a technique goes against what Roland Barthes noted in 1980 as pop art’s evidential “facticity,” where the artist is “merely the surface of his pictures.”[4] It is in this sense that Watson’s early investment in visual culture was occasionally at odds with Paul Taylor’s Barthesian assertions of her works’ second‑degree, meta‑discursive significance. For Chris McAuliffe, Watson’s paintings from this time are intensely visual and analytical but they are also rather folkloric in their declaration of the artist as human subject, operating as “subjective, highly personal reflections on memory, self and artistic aspiration.”[5]

Jenny Watson, Key Painting
Jenny Watson, The Key Painting, 1987, oil and gouache on cotton duck. Collection of Roslyn and Tony Oxley, Sydney

As Martin Jay has shown, the link between ocularcentrism and phallocentrism was a key concern for almost all the major contributors to feminist philosophy in post‑1968 France, including Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Margaret Duras and Luce Irigaray. At around the same time that Watson returned from London to begin work on her breakthrough series A Painted Page (1979), Irigaray was claiming in an interview that “investment in the look is not as privileged in women as in men. More than other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. It sets at a distance, and maintains a distance.”[6] Irigaray, whose ideas were later foregrounded by Griselda Pollock in her influential 1988 study of the feminine gazes of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, argued that women should positively embrace forms of expression that conflict with archetypically masculine concerns for opticality, unified style and eidetic essence. As Alice Jardine has observed, the feminine in poststructuralism was not just a metaphor for a certain type of open‑ended, anti‑Apollonian treatment of reading and writing, it also served as “a tool for declaring war on the Image.”[7]

In walking through The Fabric of Fantasy, I was continually reminded of Watson’s remarkable eye—for details, colours, fabrics and unconventional juxtapositions. In fact, against the anti‑ocular expectations that might have initially framed the feminist reception of her work, eyes have been a real focal point for Watson since the late 1970s. Her figures, whether self‑portraits or avatars, are frequently shown looking back at the viewer, looking into mirrors, or conspicuously depicted with their eyes closed, as if in a dream. Against the polemical postmodern debates about content versus style, critique versus complicity, conceptualism versus expressionism, Watson found her own path—her own subjectivity. In turning her eye towards visual culture at large, she developed a look that is not empty, not factual and not panoptic; but rather, suggests a portal into the imaginary. 

Jenny Watson, Self-portrait as a Narcotic
Jenny Watson, Self portrait as a Narcotic, 1989, oil, ink, animal glue and collage of paper on linen. Museum of Contemporary Art, purchased 1989. Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist

Associating the right to look with the right to dream, it only takes a cursory glance at the hard‑fought victories of feminist activists to put such sentiments into perspective. Less than ten years after women were legally allowed to drink in public bars in Australia, Watson was using punk—plagued with its own testosterone-fuelled divisions—to create a visual repertoire that was identifiably feminist but also conveyed little obligation to live up to yet more ideals and expectations. When pressed about her involvement in the women’s liberation movement, Watson states that she worked “to retain my autonomy as an artist and as a painter, and my own femininity as a subject in my work.”[8] In taking such a stance, her influence can be seen on a plethora of artists that have emerged since the 1990s, especially female painters who, like Irigaray, recognised that “feminism” could be construed as politically homogenous.[9] Tracey Emin—a collector of Watson’s work—is more overtly concerned with sexuality and the female body; her practice undoubtedly built upon Watson’s combination of painterly style, personal fantasy and archetypal deconstruction—bolstering her elevation of anti‑linear and anti‑essentialist approaches to the realms of politically and culturally astute art. 

The girliness of Watson’s imagery—her recurring references to ballerinas, ponies and Alice in Wonderland imagery (incorporating decorative textile supports and glittery craft supplies) —echo, in reverse, the masculine tropes of neo‑expressionists such as Georg Baselitz, Julian Schnabel, Sandro Chia and Jörg Immendorf. But, unlike these artists, Watson’s gendered imagery does not express an inner spirituality that borders on the parodic, rhetorically beholden to the body and its trace. Rather, they declare themselves as cultural constructs that are no more or less constitutive of the mysteries of the self, treating the documentary and the fictive as if on mutual terms. This approach draws as much from film as it does from painting, especially filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, whose influence she has cited.

Located between the anti-ocular critiques of conceptual artists, the facticity of post‑pop painting and the male egos of neo-expressionism, like the best artists, Watson makes art serve her rather than serving it, bending its largely unspoken rules to her needs. Early on, she infused her imagery with the wild and transient qualities of live music, bar life and international travel, using art as a vehicle for documenting misadventure (Self Portrait as a Narcotic, 1989, and The Mad Room, 1987). In more recent years, her paintings evince a love–hate relationship with domestic life, involving scenes at home with her horses, or reflecting with bitter‑sweet nostalgia on her past (Small Gold Hobbled, 2007, and I’ve got a Dirty Pig on my Mind, 2013). As Watson gets older, her backgrounds get starker and her figures more confident in their naivety, as playfully assured as any of Picasso’s late portraits. Seen together, her works are less conceptualisations than doodles, diary notes and fleeting thoughts, infused with affect. Her painted memories, dreams and frustrations posit the visual and the imaginary as interwoven, skirting the homogenising tendencies of ideology espousal, even as a critique of ideology.

Jenny Watson, I've Got A Dirty Pig On My Mind
Jenny Watson, I’ve got a Dirty Pig on my Mind, 2013, oil paint on cotton, grounded with rabbit skin glue frame. Image courtesy the artist, Galerie Transit, Mechelen and Verlag für zeitgenössische Kunst und Theorie © the artist. Photo: Bert de Leenheer

Having never renounced the influence of conceptualism on her practice, Watson might in fact have more in common with Jean‑Michel Basquiat, whose work similarly combines visual‑culture collage with expressive immediacy, portraying personal and social concerns through what can only be described as an eye for beauty. That said, Watson shies away from the encyclopaedic tendencies of Basquiat (as well as the cataloguing procedures of conceptual painters such as Gerhard Richter), positioning herself more towards a mode of confessional symbolism. Just as Basquiat’s yearning for street credibility is never too far away from the surfaces of his paintings, room after room of The Fabric of Fantasy conveyed an artist who is ambivalent about art that is removed from the stuff of life—from the everyday pains, joys and insecurities. As Rosemary Hawker puts it, in paraphrase of Watson’s work Love Hurts (1993–94), “the relation of art and life, their mutual inadequacy, is not just a conceptual problem exercised in the work; it does hurt.”[10] A stereotypical Watson work could celebrate juvenile fantasies, pop‑cultural fixations or decorative designs in one instance, before being revealed as a mediation on death, sexism or trauma the next.

One of the most compelling retrospective exhibitions we have seen in Australia of late, The Fabric of Fantasy, curated with a light touch by Anna Davis, documented not just an endlessly fascinating artist but also the development of our national art scene since The Field. Central to Watson’s work is her rejection of a master‑image of art‑critical trends—a key feature of contemporary Australian art and its shedding of provincialist stigmas. Watson’s late‑1970s appeal to the connectedness of all forms of visualisation—what she calls the “broad horizon” of art—was a turn towards the imaginative complexities, particularities, beauties and incongruities of her present.[11] This was no postmodern artist who changed tack in a bid to stay relevant to shifting balances of power. Rather, the exhibition suggested a contemporary response to the world, the artist’s interpretation of feminism as simply meaning “women can do anything they want to do” going hand in hand with the cultural and social multiplicities that define 21st‑century art, at least in ambition.[12] Culture and nature, suburbia and regionalism, pleasure and pain, individual fantasy and gendered politics—her works effortlessly waltz through such schemas, compelling us not just to simply look but also to feel.

Jenny Watson, Right to Look,
Jenny Watson, White horse with Telescope, 2012,synthetic polymer paint on rabbit skin glue primed cotton. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery © the artist


  1. ^ Clement Greenberg, “Changer: Anne Truitt,” The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance 1957–1969, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 288.
  2. ^ Nicholas Mirzoeff, “The Right to Look,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 3, Spring 2011, p. 474.
  3. ^ Jenny Watson, “ ‘Horses’ Jenny Watson in Conversation with Louise Neri,” Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy, Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2017, p. 103.
  4. ^ Roland Barthes, “That Old Thing, Art,” in Post-Pop, ed. Paul Taylor (ed.), Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989, p. 25.
  5. ^ Chris McAuliffe, “Trying to Live Now: Chronotopic Figures in Jenny Watson’s A Painted Page Series,” Contemporaneity, vol 3, no 1, 2014. DOI 10.5195/contemp.2014.98.
  6. ^ Luce Irigaray, “Interview with L. Iragaray,” Les Femmes, La Pornographie et L'Erotisme, M.F. Hans and G. Lapouge (ed.), Paris: Minuit, 1978, p. 50.
  7. ^ Alice Jardine, Gynesis: Confrontations of Woman and Modernity, Ithaca: Cornell University, 1985, p. 34
  8. ^ Jenny Watson, Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy, p. 106.
  9. ^ Luce Irigaray, Women Writers Talking, Janet Todd (ed.), New York: Holmes & Meier, 1983, p. 233.
  10. ^ Rosemary Hawker, “Jenny Watson Declares,” Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy, Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2017, p. 81.
  11. ^ Wes Hill, “Reflections in a Muddy Puddle,” Art Monthly Australia, no. 289, 2016, p. 24.
  12. ^ Jenny Watson, Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy, p. 106. 

Jenny Watson: The Fabric of Fantasy exhibition dates: Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, 5 July – 2 October 2017; Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 4 November 2017 – 4 March 2018.

Wes Hill teaches art history and visual culture in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, Northern NSW. His book Art after the Hipster: Identity Politics, Ethics and Aesthetics (2017) is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Card image: Jenny Watson, White horse with Telescope, 2012, synthetic polymer paint on rabbit skin glue primed cotton. Courtesy the artist and Ann Schwartz Gallery © the artist.

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