On a recent visit to the MCA in Sydney I was struck by the exhibition The Fabric of Fantasy, a sprawling and generous retrospective on the Australian painter Jenny Watson. The loose, child-like, gestural paintings centre on motifs such as horses, young girls in pretty frocks, sleepers, dreamers and scenes that bring to mind fairytale stories. I found the exhibition to be seductive, wistful and sad. The subject matter — the interior lives of women and girls — exposes a paralysing vulnerability, an earth-shattering girlishness and a pure naivety mixed with a brutal realism.
I’m mostly interested in paintings by Watson from the early 90s onwards. These seem to harbour a joy, excitement and liberation that differ from the earlier works, which reveal themselves a little too slyly and seem as though they’re trying too hard to be clever and theoretical. A young girl sitting alone on a park bench, a couple standing together in the rain, a woman sprawled on the floor listening to records — seen through Jenny Watson’s eye and painted with her hand — these moments become recognisable as our own. With this recognition there is both an incisive sadness and a kinship, The Fabric of Fantasy is both a celebration of femininity and a meditation on its difficulties and complexities.
The paintings themselves are made on an assortment of materials, ranging from common dress patterned fabrics to burlap or more traditional canvases. Not only do these add to the urgency of the subject matter, but they also physically place them indoors into the traditional and idealised mode of the feminine. Likewise, in some instances Watson incorporates little trinkets, diamantes and sequins which are endearing as they are nostalgic.
Punctuating and interjecting the painted canvases are phrases such as: “I feel like when I used to go and meet g. at the gallery” and “I woke up. I was in a hurry to paint, I put my jeans on without any panties, and an old t-shirt. I felt incredible sexy. I had 6 primed pieces of coloured burlap, nailed to the wall, ready to go” and “I got a speeding ticket”. In the context of the exhibition these somewhat benign phrases seem revelatory and poignant, and they act as a counterpoint to the quieter moments in the representational paintings.
I was left wondering if there is a photographic equivalent of Jenny Watson. Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency springs to mind, though there are similarities, such as Nan after being battered (1984)and Watson’s Love Hurts (1993-94), ultimately Watson’s work takes on a more whimsical air — as painting and the imagination often can — whereas Goldin’s Ballad is concerned with a concrete group of people, their relationships, lifestyle and its hard-edged reality.
Still, I’m left thinking about the existing framework for contemporary photographic practise and how limiting these are. They often come packaged and condensed, autonomous photographic voyages or journeys by white men (think Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, or more recently Alec Soth). The success of The Fabric of Fantasy hinged on it’s absence of a framework, though ultimately just paintings on a wall, each work approached its subject with vivacity and contributed to a nuanced, dynamic and visceral viewing experience. How then does one use the camera — an undoubtably mechanical instrument — to this effect ?