Alison Watt, phantom, National Gallery, London, 12 March – 22 June 2008→
Shift, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 2000
At the age of seven, Alison Watt, the daughter of a painter, was deeply impressed by Ingres’ portrait of Madame Moissetier (1856). She graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 1988, after winning the John Player Portrait Award the previous year, and was subsequently commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen Mother, which was added to the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Her first oils on canvas were mainly figurative portraits or female nudes in bright, luminous settings. On the occasion of an exhibition at the Fruitmaker Gallery in Edinburgh in 1997, her work began to focus increasingly on the rendering of fabrics. A. Watt works on large-format canvases, which she paints alone, using scaffolding. Her colour of choice is white, which she blends with ochre, sienna, vermilion, grey, and black pigments to produce realistically modelled draperies of an almost sculptural nature. The materials she depicts are heavy or lightweight, crumpled, knotted, or suspended, with sensual folds sometimes reminiscent of anatomical details, such as women’s genitalia inspired by Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World (1866). She exploits the suggestive power of drapery, producing chaste evocations of the presence or absence of a body: the empty sheets on a bed, the pleats of a dress, the loincloth of Christ.
In 2000 she became the youngest artist to present a monographic exhibition, Shift, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. She then turned to a form of abstraction, exhibiting her polyptych Still and six other canvases at the Ingleby Gallery during the 2004 Edinburgh Festival. That same year, she exhibited the series Dark Light, which consisted of pictures of deep black swathes of fabric presented in a closed cubic space. From 2006 to 2008, she created a series of six large format pieces meant as reinterpretations of pieces from the permanent collection of the National Gallery in London: paintings by Ingres and Holbein, and Francisco de Zurbarán’s St. Francis in Meditation (1635–1639). Through her work, A. Watt goes beyond mere studies of drapery and reaches a dramatic, perhaps even mystical, dimension marked by the influence of the Masters.