Esther Pearl Watson
Domy Books, Austin
Through July 23
by Claire Ruud
Esther Pearl Watson
secret design, 2009
See image gallery for full caption
Esther Pearl Watson’s awkwardly drafted comic (Tammy Brown is) Unlovable and her intentionally folksy paintings of rural scenes and flying saucers are two sides of the same coin: a pair of windows onto the outsider. Serialized in Bust magazine and available in book form, Unlovable documents life in small-town America from the point of view of Tammy, a gawky teenage girl. Painfully funny, each clumsily drafted frame acts like a page from a diary, relating a story of insecurity, self-consciousness and inexpert adolescent sexuality. Unlovable narrates an experience of feeling like the odd-one-out with which many of us can identify. Meanwhile, Watson’s paintings—and her persona as an artist—negotiate another outsider experience through the figure of Watson's father Gene. Like Tammy, Gene Watson is an outsider in a small town in Texas: he devoted his life to the construction of flying saucers. In Watson's work, both Tammy and Gene are proxies for the artist, who self-consciously fashions her persona in relationship to theirs.
In Texas Instruments, a series of twelve small paintings now on the walls of Domy Books, Watson builds upon her earlier body of work featuring Gene Watson and landscapes dotted with pink UFOs. In the paintings at Domy, Watson continues to depict the romantic side of rural life—barrel rides at homecoming, the starry night over a fairground or a lonesome carousel off Highway 67. Gene is absent, but the presence of his saucers (no pink ones this time) stands in for his outsider status. With a generous dose of pink and dash of glitter here and there, the fantasy of rural life seems sweet. But for all their romance, Watson’s paintings, like her comic, betray a desolate side to this fairytale. In Small Town Beauty Queens at the Gustine Homecoming (2009), girls with manes of long blonde hair stand on a float waving and throwing candy while the old pickup pulling them belches billows of smog, a thunderstorm threatens in the distance. And that carousel off Highway 67? Two big blue port-a-potties right out front mar the idyllic scene.
In these paintings, gone is the sweet escape of the pretty pink flying saucers so iconic of Watson’s earlier works. The Saucer Caught the Field on Fire (2009) even suggests the flying machine’s demise, as scribbles of smoke rise from jarring red flames on either side of an inert, ground-ridden, grey saucer. Yet the magic remains. In one of the show’s highlights, Comanche Youth Rodeo (2009), a bucking bull sparkles with a halo of iridescent pink glitter as aspiring cowboys flee. Moreover, there is yet hope for the flying saucer. In Secret Design (2009), a saucer-shaped chasm in among the twinkling stars suggests an escape into the night sky. In these paintings the enchantment of small town life, and of being an outsider within it, continues to struggle against the pathetic, the forlorn and the ugly.
Here, as in earlier work, Watson deliberately constructs her artistic persona to correspond with that of the eccentric outsider father whose presence looms in her paintings. Whether it’s true or not, the story of her childhood with him gets a lot of play in reviews of Watson’s work. But living in Los Angeles, publishing in Bust and teaching illustration at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Watson isn’t really an outsider. At the same time, the description “faux naïve,” which writers have bestowed upon her work, suggests phoniness is completely inappropriate, too. Ultimtately, Watson’s work complicates these traditional distinctions between outsider and insider, between genuine naïveté and just faking it. She reflects our own perceptions of the visionary/outsider/self-taught artist back at us, exposing the assumptions upon which these categories rest.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.