Among the works we were fortunate to see a few weeks ago at the Culture Warriors exhibition in Washington DC was Judy Watson’s 2007 canvas palm cluster. In many ways it is characteristic of Watson’s work. There is the intense blue ground whose subtle shadings suggest both night sky and ocean topographies, studded with glowing white circles that might be moon, stars, or shells. The middle of the canvas is dominated by a shape defined by a simple white line: it could be a drawing of a leaf from a tropical tree or else a stingray whose long tail traces a wake through time. The twin lobes of this object each bear three parallel white marks, symmetrical, slightly bulbous at each end. Are they long bones, or ritual scars?
Judy Watson, palm cluster, 2007 (left), and big blue world with three stupas (2004) at Culture Warriors, Washington, DC
Filling the space below this line drawing is another object that is quite unusual in Watson’s oeuvre for its solidity and its lack of ambiguity: it is a clear, detailed map of Palm Island, its white beaches outlined against the sea. Another white line traces a path from Bamboo Dam down to the coastal settlement where Cameron Doomadgee died in custody five years ago this month in an incident whose contours, unlike the map’s, still remain unclear. And once you apprehend the geography, that white, lobed drawing above the map becomes multivalent: it is also a sign of Doomadgee’s liver, split in two during “a complicated fall.” That is the phrase that was the official police explanation for the cause of Doomadgee’s death, and is it the title of another work by Watson in which the artist has expressed her grief over the dispossession and violence that afflicts her relationship to her country.
If you flip quickly through the pages of Judy Watson blood language (Miegunyah Press, 2009, with texts by Watson and Louise Martin-Chew), you can not help but be struck by the predominance of three colors, blue, red, and brown, emblematic in Watson’s visual language of memory, blood, and country. And once you understand that color symbolism, you have gone a long way toward penetrating the ambiguities of her imagery and can perceive in hues and shapes the themes that have animated her career for over twenty years.
Judy Watson blood language is one of the finest artist monographs I have come across in a long time. The texts are minimal, signposts more than explications. Martin-Chew provides a brief prologue. In eight pages she sets out Watson’s family history, her reconnection with her grandmother’s country in the 1990s, the themes of country, history, and violence, the artist’s working methods, the role of print-making and drawing, and the often literal, physical connection between ground and country and paint. The rest of the book is mostly given over to reproductions of Watson’s work, clearly annotated, sometimes with musings by the artist, sometimes with straightforward explications, sometimes left to speak for itself. Martin-Chew has divided the book into sections that capture essences: water, skin, poison, dust & blood, ochre, bones, driftnet. Each has a single page of text to introduce it; these tiny essays combine impressions with short, incisive examinations of a few representative works. Then the reader is left to absorb, and to make connections. The paintings in their abundance come to speak for themselves.
The importance of water to Watson’s work is an inescapable theme. In the film, Two Thirds Sky: artists in desert country (Arcadia Pictures, 2002), Watson is one of five Australian artists profiled, and almost her first comments address the bounty of water in her ancestral Waanyi country, a land of rich oases, tropical waterholes surrounded by the dry country of northwest Queensland. The arrowhead shape of the waters of Lawn Hill Gorge, where her grandmother Grace Isaacson came from, appears over and over in her work, transmuted at times into a heart or a shield. Upended, the shape echoes the country’s massive termite mounds, heraldic devices that proclaim Watson’s connection to that land.
Water also covers many canvases quite literally, producing the deep washes of color, the ripples in the physical surface of the work, the bleeding of pigments, the dissolution of ochres. Water gives Watson’s work its most striking aspects: its action upon paint and rock and soil literally fill the surface of so many of the works included in this volume. It gives a gauzy, hazy surface that mimics memory, that obscures and reveals.
These washy grounds throw into relief the other dramatic and important aspect of Watson’s artistry: drawing. The vast expanses of Watson’s canvas are filed with shapes that are stained into them, colors providing moods and setting up the emotional response in the viewer. The precision of the drawings that rest so lightly on the water-borne surfaces can be easy to overlook: the simplicity of line, the understated contrast between patterns drawn with colors that nearly blend into the background, the trail of tiny dots that is slow to resolve into an image.
Drawing is as essential to Watson’s work as water. In Two Thirds Sky she is shown sketching aspects of country over and over again, capturing the shape of a stone, tracing the outlines of a waterhole. The textual pages of Judy Watson blood language are studded with reproductions of the artist’s drawings of Aboriginal artifacts held in museums around the world. In making her pilgrimages to these ethnographic collections and scrupulously drawing what she finds there, Watson manages an act of repatriation that is also a critique of colonialism, exoticism, and appropriation. Titles of such works reveal the depth of her emotions, whether they be overt, like our bones in your collections, or insidious, like museum piece, with its depictions of ochred hairstrings ornamented with kangaroo’s teeth etched into the glass walls of the administrative and curatorial building at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris as part of its Australian Indigenous Art Commission.
Judy Watson, museum piece, 2006, installed at the Musee du Quai Branly.
This use of history and the re-appropriation of imagery from the colonial gaze is a strategy shared by many of the artists who were included in Culture Warriors. Daniel Boyd and Christopher Pease’s mock-historical canvases express one end of this spectrum; Julie Dowling and Vernon Ah Kee’s family portraits another. Watson mines the past for images, makes them her own, even inserts her own longings and memories into them. In this respect, I found her canvases most in sympathy, perhaps oddly, not with any of the other painters in the show, but with the photographer Ricky Maynard, who can likewise recapture only fragments of his ancestral past in Tasmania: in a “healing garden” marked by a fence, or in the poignant self-portrait of the artist gazing across the waters of the Bass Strait towards a homeland he literally can not see.
The appearance of Judy Watson blood language this year is especially welcome as the only other significant monograph on the artist still in print is the catalog from her 2003 survey show sacred ground beating heart, organized at the John Curtin Gallery of the Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia. The catalog contains essays by Ted Snell, Julie Ewington, and Louise Martin-Chew, along with an interview with the artist by Hetti Perkins. The reproductions of the works are larger and more lustrous that those inblood language, but far fewer in number. blood language also provides numerous photographs of Watson’s public art works in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Paris as well as shots of installation pieces like glass house mountains (2005) and salt in the wound (2008) that offer still another perspective on Watson’s fecund imagination. It would be hard to imagine a better introduction to Judy Watson’s work than this volume; at the same time it will enrich the appreciation of her accomplishments even for those who have followed her career with devotion over the decades.
Video of the Elision Ensemble’s installation glass house mountains at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; visual design by Judy Watson