In Conversation With Chris Watts | Episode 5

June 16, 2021
© Chris Watts Artist studio, NCY, New York
© Chris Watts Artist studio, NCY, New York

I have read an article about your work, where your work was claimed as 'Southern art' in the press and newspapers. How does this definition apply to you? 


Whenever there are a few of us, making or showcasing work on a specific level, the South definition will hold us on us. Even when I do not live in the South; my family lives in North Carolina. I share my time between NYC, New York and North Carolina. Actually the article came out, when when I was doing a six months residency at McColl Center for Art and Innovation in Charlotte, NC, where I was doing a lot of interviews. I think they still like to claim me as a Southern artist, even though I spend quite some time here, in the North East of New York City; and abroad. I take it as a flattering gesture personally. 


Is this in any way a good or a bad term or connotation at all, like stating, claiming where you are from; because that is where your roots are from? 


Absolutely. Many people would not like to be claimed Southern anything, but I mean, I am a person of the world. It is nice to hear, that people in the South are still rooting for me as I am not there all the time. I do not think it as a bad term. In regards to the artworks I make specifically, unfortunately the brutality against the black body is not a Southern issue, it is a worldwide issue which has been going on for centuries. So, calling my art Southern art, does not apply. Interesting, that you found this article. 


Witness or Pretend is the work title of an artwork by Joshua Hagler. After living in California and Los Angeles for fifteen years, he has moved to New Mexico. He lives and works in New Mexico with his family now. The artist claims “To the casual observer, so much about my home might appear “empty,” but, in fact, its resources are limitless.” What do you think about the title for the upcoming show: Witness or Pretend, Decoding materiality in Southern art? 


It works. Southern art can be global Southern. It is stretched globally, it is not stretched to the North American South only, which has a very specific history, right? The question is, can there be objectivity in the term Southern at all? 


Yeah, so let us bring up this term again. We are having this discussion at the moment, what is the definition of Southern at all? For Europeans the South means Southern Italy. For Africa it is South Africa. So what is this term Southern? Does it matter? Are we claiming it; or are we not claiming it at all with this juxtaposition in the show? We might be able to see and continue this dialogue in the actual show then. Can you describe and explain your current work process which led you to where you are now? 


I work on found wood. The canvases are stretched and handmade of found wood. I work with a mix of silks and poly-chiffons which are really delicate, transparent delicates. I work with a lot of non-traditional material, like resin, and everything else which leaves a mark. The beautiful thing was, it suspended of how I approach the surface, as it gave me transparency and layers. Resin allows me to do changes the form of poly-chiffon. It also changes the texture of this soft, delicate thing, which looks like plastic or glass, as it is a barrier, but it is so purely transparent. It has this optical illusion but is so fragile. The silks function as an intermesh and a structural component, to keep everything stretched. I started sewing those works and fabrics together which created this apparatus to work on. I started creating abstract landscapes. As I always started with this weird horizon line, it has changed the way for me to enter the work, in a formal way.


How do you use colour? How do you see colour? Can someone describe even, how to work, how to see colours differently? Has colour a certain meaning for you? 


Colours can be pushed. I use a lot of industrial and non-industrial pigments. Pigments work like an interference. The pigments allow that light passes the object, so the act on those surfaces can be quite performative. Over the last five or six years I started mastering of how I control some aspects of the process on the surface.


Where did you get trained in the arts, did you practice by yourself? 


I did my undergrad at University in Charlotte. I am cross-trained in two different BFA programs in graphic arts, and in painting, I later was invited to an exchange program at the University of arts and design, in Poland. We studied mostly glass, as they are very renowned in glass-making. I pursued my MFA at the Yale School of Arts which is a very inter-disciplinary program, they open up a lot of doors to test a lot of things, for me it was a cross-disciplinary study in painting and print-making.  


Seeing Untitled (Intro II) which has orange, yellow and purple stains, the artwork turning into a 2d texture is very different from what the auratic experience can expand into. How did your work process turn into abstraction?


In my earlier work prior to Yale, I worked heavily with figure. I would collect and file away Vintage magazines. In my studio you would find piles of life in magazines that range back from the 1950s to the 1990s. Switching it, and changing the context, I wanted to maintain that history somehow in my work. I find myself doing that a lot, instead of having conversations with famous artists that already exist, I like to have conversations with older work that I made. I am constantly in conversation with a cruise of myself, either pooling things around whether they are still important, to investigate, what life molds and changes individually.


How did you arrive in your current practice, where are you working now?


I moved to Paris for a year. While I lived in Paris, the shootings and violence of Ferguson happened. How people consume those news in Europe is culturally different from how it was received in the States. The French were taking it like; oh my god, what is happening in the States? In the States, everybody was like; yeah, that happens. At that time, it happened in policing culture that cops were made wearing body cams. So with that rage after this was being issued, more violence happened. It was not that there was more violence, it was rather that you could see it now. So while I was collecting those magazines, I would download these videos and I would file it away. After months of researching this, I had a full catalogue of police shootings. Working cross-discipline and with the moving image, with light as a sculptural object, and thinking about projecting into a black space I was thinking of installation. I found myself suffering from a high dose of PTSD (Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder) while I was watching these videos. When a body cam has evidence which goes to the highest court of law, the highest court in land, and in the courtroom the judge says it did not happen this way; as an artist you ask yourself, what is the power of those images?


You collected all those things and created those archives, do you think you will come back to this certain work in the future in a more conceptual approach?


It is there for a reason. The way that I came to conclusion how I wanted to approach it, was abstraction, to remove the figure. How do I remove the black figure? The black figure is constantly overly sexualized or brutalized in images. How do I still pay respect to the black body? I revisited the surface, and I thought about visibility and the non-visibility, the way the black figure exists in our culture. That is how I made this jump from working with figure, to abstract works, to working with as something as delicate as silk. I was still working with those videos. In those videos you have 24 images and frames per second which I would use as a source material for my paintings of images, a lot of blur mechanical failure, is sometimes lights which hit a certain way, and a flash, maybe this is how it works, seeing information differently, and how to bring this visual digital information into an object. This was a starting ground for me and that is how the work operates now. That is the »The Blahk on Blahk on Blak series«. Because of the transparent nature of the work, every single painting was made for a black wall. If you put those works on a green wall, it would work completely different. The reds would be no reds anymore. Why do institutions rely on white walls? So every image of »The Blahk on Blahk on Blak series« is a memorial to those people who died due to a police officer.


Interview conducted by Katharina Balgavy