For the first 12 years of her life, future artist Jenny Watson grew up in Melbourne’s leafy, genteel Mont Albert, before her family moved to Box Hill, where she saw herself as stuck in a suburb that stretched on forever, and had to listen to her parents talk about when she would get engaged, get married, have a home of her own and have kids.
“I was hell bent on escape from quite a young age,” Watson tells Art Guide.
Born in 1951, she would embrace the swinging 60s and Brit pop from the Beatles to Twiggy. Watson taught herself to paint very ordinary things: fruit, suburban houses and horses, then texts of sentences. Abstract and conceptual art dominated the scene by the time she enrolled in art school in Melbourne, in 1970.
She would become a keen observer of the punk scene, and deeply interested in feminism.
Watson’s upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, The Fabric of Fantasy, highlights her decision to “filter the life of a suburban girl through a conceptual lens”, as she writes in one piece of text art, as a “slow developing but key moment”.
“My parents were old enough to be my grandparents, because they met late in life,” explains Watson, who has lived since 2000 on the fringes of rural Brisbane with her partner Andrew Wilson, an architect and teacher, on a property with a stable of five horses.
Not that youthful rebellion came entirely without connection to her parents: with her dad, born in 1908, she grew up revelling in black and white Hollywood, watching Mary Pickford, the Keystone Cops, Rudolph Valentino and Laurel and Hardy on TV, which had launched in Australia in 1956. He would play film historian, regaling her with behind-the-scenes gossip he had read.
But there was, for those days, a big age and cultural gap. “A teenager being affected by the swinging 60s and the music and fashion and the behaviour that went with it was really considered quite shocking, and almost unacceptable,” says Watson.
“There were fights over hair and short skirts and what time you got home from a dance. Probably things that happened in many households, but I always felt to be exaggerated in mine, because my parents were older.”
In her mother, Watson sensed missed opportunities. Some of Watson’s earliest drawings in primary school were of her mum, in curly perm and glasses, waiting for her outside the school gates.
“My mother had been a very capable accountant, as a young woman, and then she got taken up by the idea of good works, so she left accounting to work in an orphanage. And then she trained as a nurse. So she was a very capable person, but ended up, like a lot of women in those days, running a household and probably being somewhat frustrated.”
Watson calls nostalgic pictures she has drawn as “memory portraits”, because she has an extraordinary recall. “I can pull up images from 30 years ago as fresh as if they were yesterday,” she says. “I’ve been told by people who know much more about this than me that there is such a thing as a retentive memory.”
Horses figure prominently in her work, in what she reveals are largely a kind of self-portrait. “I work a lot with what I call alter-egos, and apart from very obvious self-portraits in the work, sometimes that feeling of who you are can come through other things, whether that’s dogs, horses, cats, birds, flowers, houses. I work with a range of things that could be seen as symbolic.”
Watson’s process is long and elaborate, “by osmosis”. She invests much time in sourcing fabrics from around the world. “I have a theory that the fabrics that are popular in a certain place somehow express something about that place. For example, beautiful, fine cotton in India for saris are to do with heat and are chromatically beautiful.”
Next, Watson thinks about the images she will put onto the fabric. She primes the fabrics with rabbit skin glue, and then paints on an image in oils or acrylics, after which she thinks about an accompanying text panel such as a song lyric line, and perhaps an object to add from her vast inventory of ceramic collectibles – “I was always a tireless op-shopper” – such as a small China figurine.
Her house is built into the side of a slope, and the downstairs, where the studio is located, is a more rustic version of upstairs. About 10 years ago, she employed a studio assistant, artist Simon Roots, who still works with Watson. He looks after the priming, stretching and photographing. They have workdays together, and then, despite the important role music played in her formative years, Watson’s work painting images is “very alone, very silent and very private”.
The Fabric of Fantasy
Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney
5 July – 2 October