Preview: Alison Watt exhibition, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

A NEW painting by Alison Watt is a rare thing: she makes scarcely a handful a year.

A NEW painting by Alison Watt is a rare thing: she makes scarcely a handful a year.

And a show by Alison Watt is rarer still: her new exhibition, Hiding In Full View, which opened this weekend at Edinburgh’s Ingleby Gallery, is her first in her native Scotland for eight years.

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The show’s title captures something of Watt’s own status: back in the country after some years in London, but so busy painting that her audiences might not be aware of it. She has spent an intense year and a half in the studio and admits she is exhausted. “Work has been life-affirming for me,” she says. “It has been a great solace. It’s something that you can actually lose yourself in and that’s necessary. But I’m ready for a rest.”

And the title captures something, too, of the emotional darkness and latent eroticism suggested by her six new paintings of swathes of twisted textiles which are “difficult to identify and at the same time incredibly intimate”.

Where once she took inspiration from the old masters, Watt has a new muse: the late American photographer Francesca Woodman. Last year, Watt and Woodman hung side by side in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. And at Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, Watt’s art is shown beside Woodman’s on dove grey walls with a series of haunting one-line poems by the prize-winning Scottish poet Don Paterson.

The first thing that Watt sees when she wakes up in the morning is a small print by Woodman, Untitled, Providence, Rhode Island (1976). Hanging in the painter’s Edinburgh bedroom, the photograph shows an empty room and a detached door balancing precariously against a wall. It’s an ambiguous image that evokes the tricky human balancing act: partly tragic, almost comic. Lots of her friends have different views about the picture, Watt explains. “But I see it as a violent image: it’s as if the door has been blown off its hinges.”

It’s that sense of the human body evoked even in its absence, about the way inanimate objects can capture emotions, that seems to draw Watt to Woodman’s art: “In her many self-portraits she is often barely there.”

Something of Woodman’s off-kilter geometry has entered the Glasgow-trained painter’s own art in the last 18 months. Watt was born in Greenock in 1965, and has had a stellar career, numerous awards including an OBE and a famous portrait of the Queen Mother.

Woodman, a precocious and talented young artist brought up in New York, took her own life in 1981, at the age of just 22. But her art has outlived her death and a major survey of her work has just opened in San Francisco.

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It comes then as little surprise to find that in exploring this story, Watt’s new six paintings are her darkest works to date. In talking about Woodman, Watt talks about ghosts, about spectral presences. When we meet at the gallery, Watt shows me a photograph that Woodman made when she was just 13. Woodman is turning away from the camera, her image dissolving into the light that is shining through the adjacent window: “It seems as if her future was already set.”

Talking of her own paintings, she says: “I think there is something gothic about them, a sense of desolation.” Certainly, set against the white swirl of Watt’s fabric is an emphatic darkness. Paterson’s poems seem alive to the fact that at the heart of each of Watt’s white paintings is a dark void: one poem reads “What we show when we disclose, undress, is both the promise and its emptiness.”

Watt famously made her name with portraiture and self-portraiture. But in 2000, in her landmark exhibition Shift at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the figure had finally disappeared from her art.

Instead, in her paintings of textiles, the human body was evoked only by traces. Where once Watt was influenced by the pale rustling silks of 19th century France in portraits by Ingres, or the fall of saintly white robes in the paintings of Zurbarán, the folds and loops of cloth in her new works seem closer to the intimate folds of the female body. Her most recent painting, Fount, might be a female nude distorted by a camera lens or accidentally glimpsed in repose.

Watt side-steps the question of whether you might understand these works as self-portraits, but she’s open about suggesting that painters do reveal themselves through their work. “The difficulty about making portraits, one of the reasons I stopped making portraits of other people, is that they end up being all about you,” she says. “You make the work so you don’t need to explain.”


• Alison Watt: Hiding In Full View is at the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, until 28 January