Art review: Alison Watt - Paintings 1986-2014, Perth

Alison Watt reverses the classic gender cliché of the female form as passive subject of the male gaze, writes Duncan Macmillan

Alison Watt's exhibition at the 
Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Picture: Contributed
Alison Watt's exhibition at the 
Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Picture: Contributed
Alison Watt's exhibition at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Picture: Contributed

Alison Watt: Paintings 1986-2014

Perth Museum and Art Gallery

Rating: * * * *

In his poem, “Consider This And In Our Time”, WH Auden wrote about all “the convolutions of your simple wish.” Two hundred years earlier Thomas Blackwell also described “all the folds and windings of the human breast”. Both invoke the complexities that potentially attend even the simplest human actions and exchanges. Blackwell’s figurative description, however, also suggests some kind of fabric folded and wound around our consciousness, concealing it either as it is perceived from outside, but also, turning to Auden, as it is experienced from within, for who knows all the convolutions of a simple wish?

A similar poetic figure informs Alison Watt’s most recent painting. For a number of years now she has been preoccupied with an image of folds and windings. She paints, often on a large scale, what appear to be sheets of folded and crumpled fabric. Perhaps linen, it is usually white and, as though screening something, is extended to cover the whole painted surface of the canvas. The folds are always deep enough at some point to create intriguing shadows that imply interiority, something mysterious that lies, not beyond this screen of fabric, but within it; that what we are looking at is not a simple still-life, or an exercise in drapery painting, but a metaphor.

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Like the poetic figures used by Auden and Blackwell, it stands for the complexities of our moral experience.

A mini-retrospective of Watt’s work at Perth Museum, part of the nation-wide Generation programme of exhibitions, offers some insight into how this imagery evolved and perhaps what it stands for. Four of her large fabric paintings are also on view at the SNGMA, or Modern One as it is now called. They are also part of Generation.

Watt graduated from Glasgow in 1988, just a few years after Steven Campbell and his contemporaries had made a splash with a return to dramatic figurative painting. As a figurative painter herself, Watt might seem to have followed them, but her use of the figure is the only point of continuity. Otherwise, her work could not be more different. Sleeping Nude from 1989, for instance, is one of the earliest pictures in the show. Painted in muted colours, it shows a naked female figure curled up as though in sleep. With her back towards us, she is lying on a tangle of sheets and bedclothes in subtly differentiated textures and shades of white and grey. The painting is cool, but fluent, the drawing eloquent, classical and controlled. Indeed the picture calls to mind the subtle, neo-classical eloquence of Ingres’s Grand Odalisque painted 200 
years ago.

The theme of the female nude continued in Watt’s work for the next decade. Flat Nude of 1994, for instance, shows a woman seen from above lying on her front on a low bed. Her face is turned partly towards us and her feet are propped up on a pillow. Setting off the warmth of her skin, the bedlinen is crisp and white, but it also subtly reflects these warm tones. This harmony is then extended in the subtle pinks and greys of a patterned fabric on the floor in front of the bed. It is a perfectly exquisite piece of painting, but Watt would not be the artist that she is were that to be all. Nor indeed in the context of the kind of feminist discussion that was current at the time could a painting of a female nude by a woman artist be aesthetically neutral.

In an article on women’s art and the issue of gender written by Adele Patrick in 1997 and reprinted in the Generation catalogue, the author quotes an earlier discussion of “art femininity” by Val Walsh: the woman’s body becomes the terrain upon which patriarchy is erected and this has a specific resonance within art education and art; many contemporary women have shown imagination and ingenuity in using their bodies as sites of resistance in their art.

It is broadly in keeping with this idea that the earliest painting in Watt’s show is a self-portrait. Painted in 1986-7, when she was a student, it is not of her body, however, but just of her face, one hand and a bit of white shirt. She does not flatter herself and her face is without expression, but her right hand is clasped across her forehead as though she has been struck by a sudden thought.

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The gesture is clearly a held pose, however, not a sudden movement. This makes it enigmatic. It is as though she is holding in a thought, or even a whole mental process. Certainly it hints that the intention of her painting is cerebral, not sensual, and the balance of texture and control in the actual painting seems also to bear this out.

From that loaded self-image, she moved on to several self-portraits in which she does present her whole body, not actually naked, but screened or partly clothed. In Crown of Thorns (1991) she is standing in front of a draped cloth holding an inverted bunch of long-stemmed roses against her naked upper body. The inverted roses invert romance, perhaps, and the pain of the thorns held against her naked flesh extend that thought. None of this registers in her expression, however. All she is wearing apart from the roses is a crown of leaves and, in a witty and equally anti-romantic appropriation, a pair of men’s underpants. In Disposition of the Linen, painted a year later, she has a cloth printed with flowers draped across her hands and is wearing the same underpants, but is otherwise naked apart from a wreath of leaves around her neck. The roses she held in the earlier picture are now strewn around her feet. There is half an apple on a window-sill behind her. The apple also appears on a white plate in the foreground of Love Token, apparently another self-portrait, but showing only her arms and naked upper torso. Pointedly the apple is the symbol of Eve and implicitly here, it is her ambiguous love token to Adam.

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I am not sure if this interrogation of her naked self really represents an exploration of “the terrain upon which patriarchy is erected”, however. It is more dignified and independent than that. I would compare it more to Cecile Walton’s naked self-portrait, Romance, painted 60 years earlier. As Walton does in that remarkable picture, Watt’s is an interrogation of the self through the independent perspective that gender gives it. It is the confident assertion of a point of view rather than repetition of a tired polemic.

This in turn gives us a perspective on her fabric pictures.Watt makes explicit the connection between her paintings of fabric and of the female body in two paintings from 1996 and 1997, Sleeper/Fragment II and A Serpentine Line/Fragment VII. Both are composed of paired canvases, one of painted fabric and the other of a female nude. Thereafter she concentrated increasingly on paintings of fabric alone, but her fabric paintings keep that association with the female body and more specifically, with what physically defines its gender. This is often also implicit in titles like Fount and Hood, both on view in Perth, or Source and Rosebud in the SNGMA, but the imagery is idealised and abstracted.

It moves back to metaphor, back to all those folds and windings and convolutions. What she has achieved is an image of the interiority of self and particularly of the female self. Thus she has reversed the classic gender cliché of the female body as passive subject of the male gaze to demonstrate instead and with perfect self-confidence the separate and wholly independent perspective of gender viewed from within.

Until 28 September