In Conversation With Chris Watts | Episode 5

June 16, 2021
© Chris Watts Studio, NYC
© Chris Watts Studio, NYC

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 Southern definition will hold 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 of 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, the artist has moved to New Mexico. He lives and works in New Mexico with his family now. The artist claims: “For the casual observer, so much about my home might appear 'empty', but in fact, its resources are limitless.” Let us think about disrupting the vast lands of the-so-called Southern states, or Southern hemisphere in general, with the terminology of 'Southern'. 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. 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 which I gathered. 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 change 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 always, I started with this weird horizontal line, it has changed the way for me to enter the work, in a formal way.


How do you use color in your work? Has color a certain meaning for you? 


Colors 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 some of the aspects of how I control the process of color on the surface.


Where did you get trained in the arts; how did your practice at art school influence you? 


I did my undergrad at University in Charlotte, US. 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 arts 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.  


Speaking of your work 'Untitled (Intro II)' which has orange, yellow and purple stains, and seeing the artwork turn 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 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.


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 and after 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?


Coming from this cross-disciplinary approach: You collected all those items, and created those Video archives, do you think you will come back to this certain work in a more conceptual approach in the future?


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. Sometimes it is lights which hit a certain way, and a flash, and I thought; 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