Jenny Watson, Australian Artist of the Future Picking Up Glasses at the Crystal Ballroom, 1987. Roslyn Oxley Gallery.
Jenny Watson has never seen her gender as an impediment to success, but becoming an internationally-recognised artist requires tenacity.
Interview by Sarah Hall
I went to High School in Box Hill in suburban Melbourne. By complete chance, my matriculation art teacher was a very brilliant man called David Williams, who seemed more like a friend than a teacher. He was probably 22 and I was 18. He let us play the Rolling Stones in class.
At that point I didn’t have a solid idea of what I was going to do after I finished high school. I wouldn’t have known a place like the National Gallery of Victoria Art School existed if it wasn’t for David, who had studied there himself.
I applied for the Gallery School and a couple of other courses, including the art course at RMIT and art teaching at a secondary teacher’s college. Then I was offered a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the Gallery School, which would pay for food, board and books, and that was what swayed me, and my parents, in the end. I began at the Gallery School the same year that it moved to the Roy Grounds building [the NGV building] on St Kilda Road, Melbourne. It was a fresh, clean, architecturally-impressive building, a beautiful place to start my art education.
For me, being brought up in suburban Melbourne in the 50s and 60s, there was a feeling that I had to get out, and that great things happened elsewhere. A lot of the imagery that I later explored in my art references the ordinary, suburban Melbourne of my childhood. This type of imagery had largely been overlooked by artists at that point, and my willingness to explore it is part of what defined me as an artist.
I did a ground-breaking work in 1981 called Conversation Piece on canvas boards comprising of half images and half texts. I had also done two very small paintings called An Original Oil Painting in 1980 that are only text. I like the look of words. I think that text is an interesting way to take an artwork to a different place. An element of psychoanalysis comes into it. People have described my work as being super personal, and feminist, and text can help bring those elements to the work.
The feminist movement in New York in the 70s was very influential on me and my female peers. Contrary to popular belief, I think the 70s were a great time to be working as a female artist.
I’ve achieved nearly everything I would have wanted to achieve and I don’t dwell on the negatives, or think that my being a woman stopped me from getting where I am. When you’re young and strong and ambitious, and you want to get yourself out there, being a woman is not a huge issue in your mind.
There are theories that women may make art differently to the way men do. That’s a really interesting question for discussion but I don’t know if I would be concrete about any answers on that topic. When you look at creative people’s practices you really get a full spectrum of approaches, regardless of gender. What I am interested in is opening up the human content, exploring what it means to be human, and how that feels.
Being given my first opportunity to exhibit overseas in Germany in 1990 was everything I could have possibly hoped for. I was 39 years old so I wasn’t an ingénue thinking, ‘this is the beginning of everything’. I was able to take it in my stride. I’ve been working overseas from the connections established from that first interaction ever since.
There has never been any pulling back for me. You can’t say, ‘I’m not sure if I really want this,’ because the pool of successful artists is pretty small and there are thousands of people queuing up to take your place. In markets like Germany and New York, procedures are very cut and dried, not like the sometimes lackadaisical practices here. If important people in the art world in Europe or America said, ‘Jump!’, I would say, ‘How high?’
I’m currently working on a big retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, which opens in July and runs for three months. It goes right back to a painting I made in 1972 at the National Gallery Art School, through to a work which I made last year: a large watercolour and pencil drawing of a 1950s suburban street in Melbourne.
One of the biggest strengths of my work is that it’s totally monastic and self-defined. I have always, and always will, make all the decisions.”