Proving that “pretty can be powerful,”Australian artist Jessica Watts produces floral paintings with a feminist focus. In her series, Wallflower, Watts employs playful patterns and brightly-colored blooms to accentuate the strength and beauty of the self-possessed woman.
Each expressive painting in this series features an anonymous female figure standing before a backdrop inspired by a real-life wallpaper pattern. In most depictions, the subject's nudity is concealed by bouquets bursting with textured blossoms. Thick brushstrokes sculpt the flowers' petals, accentuating their form and allowing them to stand out against the flatness of the patterned surfaces.
To Watts, these floral paintings explore a reclaimed concept of female empowerment by celebrating each figure's connection with nature. Similarly, by cloaking the figures in flowers, she strives to capture them in a way that shows “beauty is more about the hidden than the revealed.”
Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with Watts about this striking series, as well as her other passions and projects. Read on to learn more about her fascinating practice in our exclusive interview.
Prior to becoming a painter, you worked in advertising. What made you decide to switch careers?
I have always been a maker of things. When it came time to choose a degree course, I was guided away from Fine Arts and towards a degree in Visual Communication, mainly due to the pervasive “starving artist” myth.
I was a designer in Sydney for a few years before heading off to New York for a decade to work as an advertising art director. When I returned to Sydney I continued functioning in advertising for a few years but the projects weren’t exciting me, so I decided to leap into fine arts. Although it would have been great to go to art school, I think my experience working with ideas commercially has informed the way I approach my painting in a really positive way.
How would you describe your style?
Joyful, maximalist…I use layering and texturing techniques while focussing on the figure and the natural world. An artist friend of mine recently suggested my work is Mannerist in style, which I thought was really interesting.
I take inspiration from the natural world, flat surfaces are covered with pattern, limbs are elongated, body parts are slightly exaggerated (I always enlarge hands slightly to add strength to the figure), I often use collapsed perspective and I aim to delight and surprise with inventive and playful motifs. Maybe I am a modern-day Mannerist!
Much of your work features vivid floral patterns and brightly colored birds. What draws you to these subjects?
I am enchanted by color and birds and flowers are some of the most brightly colored living things. When I am “dressing” my women I think of these subjects as nature’s best accessories. Birds and flowers are usually considered feminine, which helps with my message-making.
You also feature female-centric content in your paintings. You note, however, that you explore “feminine power,” not “sexual power.” How do you distinguish these ideas from one another?
We are conditioned to see ourselves through the eyes of men. Our world is saturated with both overt and thinly veiled sexualized images and ideals of women.
The “wallflower” was a male-construct: the girl waiting meekly on the sidelines had no relevance if not accepted by a man. I wanted to revisit this stereotype and see what happens to the wallflower when you strip away the male gaze. Beauty becomes more about the hidden than the revealed: the figures emerge from the background, rather than sink into it. My women aren’t waiting on the sidelines to be chosen, they are strongly solo, self-possessed, and joyfully female.
Many of your paintings are mixed media, incorporating materials like wallpaper and even concrete. What inspires your choice in materials?
It’s actually the materials that inspire the work. Like many artists I’m a collector. Materials are all around me waiting to be appropriated! I have drawers stuffed with vintage playing cards, old matchbooks, retro seed packets. When I decided to crack out my extensive collection of vintage wallpapers I was directly inspired by the wallpaper itself to produce the current Wallflower series.
When I started my playful little side project Pretty Boy I was messing with gender stereotypes again, this time with my tongue firmly planted in cheek. Pretty Boy has more than one mirror in his bedroom, he chooses cocktails over beer, and he’s never been camping in his life. These flippant brightly plumed chaps are juxtaposed with the concrete—a traditionally masculine, solid, cold material.
Have you faced any challenges using such unconventional materials?
Often it just takes a bit of creative problem solving and applying the knowledge you already have. I make all my own timber panel supports. I have experimented with Dibond as a support and with archival gator board, for oversized paintings. I have painted over the surface of plastic bread tags, I’ve painted over vintage board games. I’m currently working on samples of concrete veneer for large artworks and I’m also messing around with drawings on zinc. Luckily, I can also lean on the extensive knowledge of my builder-husband (and his trove of “big-man” power tools).
Painting on concrete threw up a few challenges because I liked it raw and a bit chalky (so I didn’t want to seal it). It took a bit of trial and error to get a good technique to avoid the oil paint cracking.
We love following your work! What's next?
Thank you. I am working on a series of snail sculptures that climb walls and hang off the edge of the frames of paintings. This project has been around for a while, but I’ve promised myself I will have an “Escargatoire“of snails for my next big show in September at Sydney Road Gallery.
I exhibit regularly in Japan and I have a show opening there soon. I really enjoy collaborating with other creatives: I am always keen to do interesting projects outside the gallery setting because I see my practice as being bigger than paintings on walls. It’s probably a hangover from my advertising days!
I am about to paint my first mural. I’m also developing wallpaper murals with an interior designer. They are about 3 meters wide and they look a-ma-zing. How cool to start with wallpaper, turn it into a painting, and turn the painting back into wallpaper again.