Let a cu­ra­tor help you with how to look at ab­stract art

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY JEN­NIFER SUDUL ED­WARDS Arts Cor­re­spon­dent

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.

DAREMEN J.

Chris Watts talks about his process of cre­at­ing ab­stract art with cu­ra­tor and artist Jen­nifer Sudul Ed­wards. Be­hind him is one of his paint­ings at the McColl Cen­ter for Art + In­no­va­tion in Char­lotte. Watts talks about un­con­ven­tional meth­ods such as work­ing with silk and other trans­par­ent fab­rics.

DAREMEN J.

Some of the many spray paints that artist Chris Watts keeps in his stu­dio at the McColl Cen­ter.

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