Ambiguity is both liberating and confounding. We can interpret as we prefer or struggle to find certainty.
That’s why an abstract artwork can make a viewer uneasy and also why the Observer asked me to write about how I approach abstract art. I wanted an example that is accessible to anyone: on view, free to the public and relatively easy to get to via public transportation or car.
Fortunately, we have the painter Chris Watts, who is normally based in Brooklyn, N.Y., but currently in residency at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation and simultaneously on exhibit at the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art , both on Tryon Street in Charlotte.
I have admired Watts’ paintings for years.
My first reaction to these works was to focus on the material: a thick miasma of intense color clouds the center of the painting, but as the eye moves towards the edges, the support becomes transparent, a hazy gauze revealing the wooden stretcher bars beneath and the wall behind. There, the shadows created by the painting construct a second work. A simple painting suddenly feels like a magic trick.
It also feels corporeal, like a body. When I first saw Watts’ work, I thought of skin — layers of different skin tones, interacting and melding into space. The double play of surface and interior also made me think of double meanings and hidden secrets. The whole work is mesmerizingly beautiful, but also haunted.
I visited Watts to discuss his process, his materials, and his reaction to his own works.
Watts explained that he does not work on canvas, like most painters, but on silk, a material that is transparent in nature but has such fibrous strength that it can support layers of pigment. The shimmering colors come from a variety of sources: makeup, car enamel paint that he sprays on with industrial tools, traditional oils, and resin, which gives the taut surface a hard shell almost like the fiberglass of a surfboard.
Although the results resemble cloudscapes or sunsets over the water, they, in fact, originate from news reports on violence against black people. Many of the paintings on view at McColl were taken from screenshots of the footage of the September 2016 protests in Charlotte that erupted after the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
Here is where the magic of Chris Watts’ artistry unfolds.
The haunting quality that I detected derives not only from Watts’ mastery of his unconventional materials, but from the frustration, anger and sadness embedded in the original press coverage, even for viewers who don’t know the details of Watts’ process. And the corporeal elements — the skin tones, the shades from eyeshadow capsules, the hard veneer in some sections and the fragile webbing of others — metaphorically connect all those sources.
Mortal bodies have been cut down, communities struggle to maintain cohesion and the nation confronts its origin as a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities. Watts’ work is a meditation on how these entities must coexist amidst their brilliant differences.
Jennifer Sudul Edwards, Ph.D., is an independent curator who lives in Charlotte. Her next show, Face in the Crowd, opens at SOCO Gallery on June 16 and her next museum exhibition, W/ALL: Defend, Divide, the Divine, opens at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles on Sept. 21.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.