Watson painting Spring viewing it in Autumn

This afternoon A, madly loom bandzing ms 7.y.o. myself and two friends made the short trip over the ridges to the deep middle of the Yarra Valley. The vineyard, gallery, gourmet slither of the middle. The main intent was to have a look at the current show|s at TarraWarra, with a side diversion for coffee and sweet treats at the Harvest Foodstore in Healsville. Misty drizzle mizzly drive with stoic sheep arse to the breeze in aspirational paddocks. Muzzled light, yellowing musk vineyards, Healsville trees turning to the winter, verdant dampness.

Jenny Watson’s Spring (1989). Big, really bloody big, on either unprimed linen or very lightly primed linen. The horse, the girl, spring scattered as letters across the canvas. All ground.

Jenny Watson. Spring. 1989.
oil, collage, beads, rabbit skin glue, material on canvas


(Image Via Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.)

Looking at this painting is a carnal act. That might be too strong. But the blue of the sky, the individual strokes, the way the paint and the linen have addressed each other. The crudity of the lines yet sill expressing a confidence and certainty, so not hesitant, unsure, naive or uninformed but with all the swerve of knowing the authority of these strokes and lines. (When I saw Toulouse–Lautrec’s works in the flesh in Paris and Albi my understanding of him was transformed. Lines that were vectors of their own intent that happened to also be people and rooms.) So if not carnal then it is the stuff of this painting, its materials, and the way they have been used, what they are doing as paint linen beads rabbit skin glue material brush stroke blue orange green red s p r i n g that is what matters. Then I read the blurb, safe there to the side pristine proper black on that dull Cartesian white. And it informs us readers (not lookers with our carnal hungry haptic eyes) that:

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Misses the point, doesn’t it? This explanation, which makes no attempt to engage discuss think with why how the, well, very material thingness of this painting, almost runs from it. At best we get the mention of some “broad horizontal brushstrokes”. This explanation could be of almost any painting of a girl on a horse, couldn’t it? And if it could as well apply to any painting of a girl on a horse how is it about this painting of a girl on a horse?

Google image search, girl on a horse

In this curatorial commentary the joy of the image as an enacting of things (let’s not repeat the litany again) is either thought to be obvious – after all its in the picture right alongside – or, possibly, too unpronounceable and describable and so we do that clever thing we do as good post somethings. We reduce this field of picture and surface and texture and things (rabbit skin glue anyone?) to what it represents, to what it is about. But surely this is not what this painting is about? This description is what it shows, by doing something else (by being a painting first?).

Perhaps I am missing the point here? I love painting, and this painting is about, well, being a painting (as all painting is in some manner) and out of that something else might arise, and here perhaps the girl and the horse being alone in the ground of field of brown might have been the prompt for the opportunity for the painting to do things. Just as a song or a dance or a poem might also be a response to a girl on a horse alone. But to then go past what this song or dance or poem is to reduce it to what it is about?

There is a risk (and as a university teacher of apparently smart students this is a very real risk) here that meaning becomes the index and measure of the work. “What does it mean?” And if you can’t rein it into the babel tower of language, then, well, we’re at a loss of what just to do with it. Or about it. There is an equivalence that is being suggested here, that the painting is what it means (as this blurb almost sort of does) and this is to subsume what is outside of meaning and language (where meaning is understand as what can be said, written, described within words) into the province of language. A sort of grand gesture of communicative colonisation.

I really liked the show. And I enjoyed seeing this painting and reading the blurb because it really make concrete for me a lot of the material I’ve been covering with honours students in our media objects lab. The stark distance and difference between what sort of thing the painting is, and what it does, is literally alien to this ‘explanation’ which, quite literally, pays no regard to anything particular about the painting except what it represents. Short circuit to meaning. I mean, if the painter just wanted to deal with what the blurb says, why paint? Why not write, sing, pen a poem? It’s a painting. That matters. Most. It flees ontology for not so much epistemology as a variety of epistemphilia.

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