CHLOE S. WATSON's enigmatic renderings of nondescript landscapes and architecture are based on places she has lived. Her work investigates the abstraction of fact through memory. She deals with experiences, objects and people that should evoke emotion, but instead all the emotion is stripped away. The viewer is left with only a graphic rendering of a human experience. What's left out is as important as what remains. Her work is currently included in Binderful, an online exhibition at Baker Fine Art, which is housed in an actual binder and will begin traveling to art spaces around the country in late January 2013. Her upcoming solo show at Delaplaine Visual Arts Center (Frederick, MD) opens in August 2013. Chloe lives in Farmington, Maine, where she and husband, the artist Jason Irla, run the space Points North out of a retired horse barn.
OtherPeoplesPixels: The most consistent formal quality in your landscape paintings is an exploration of architectural space through color and line. Objects are flattened into mere shapes: mountains become triangles, a sand dune becomes a pink blob, a doorway becomes a blue rectangle. How does this abstracting of architecture and landscape reveal your conceptual concerns?Chloe S. Watson: I’ll give a little background about the origin of this work first: I didn’t start taking my paintings and drawings seriously until my second year of graduate school at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Before graduate school, I was primarily working three-dimensionally and thought of my drawings as preliminary studies for future sculptures or installations. I was struggling with my sculptural work, and I was encouraged in graduate school to examine my drawings. They were more interesting formally and accomplished things that the sculptures couldn't. Through drawing and painting, I could reference architectural spaces that would be impossible to physically bring into the studio.
The early spatial paintings came out of the formal drawing exercises I was doing in my studio—cutting out and arranging flat paper sculptures, lighting them, and drawing them from life. At the time, I was thinking a lot about my personal experiences and memories of spaces. I had just read The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. Reading about architecture as a container for memories struck a chord with me and is something I think about constantly. My family moved around many times while I was younger, and readjusting to a new place became the norm; it had a profound effect on me as a person and an artist.
I began translating my memories of architectural spaces—my childhood bedroom, for example—into the backgrounds for those strange forms, and I would insert other objects into the paintings as well.The paintings are mostly about absence verses presence and substitution; substituting nondescript forms for furniture that lived in a particular space kept the viewer from accessing the “true” memory of that place. I was also interested in creating a visual vocabulary of nondescript objects that could be read as windows, doors, holes or even streams or puddles of liquid. These forms suggest but never dictate what roles they play in the paintings. This is still important to me, because it allows room for any interpretation from the viewer.
OPP: I see what you mean about what the drawings can do that the sculptures can't. In a painting like Wall with Columns, I can see that there are two columns in this space and a drawing of two columns on a wall in the background. When I first glance at the piece, I see the representation of a three-dimensional space, but the more I stare, the more that space disappears into pure color and line. It goes totally flat. Then I have this Magic Eye experience: the image keeps moving back and forth between the second and third dimension. Your drawing of the columns becomes equivalent to your drawing of a drawing of a column. How is this connected to your ideas about memory?
CSW: I’m glad that you had that experience, because I attempt to confuse the viewer’s perception of space in most of these paintings. That confusion is connected to what I find fascinating about remembering: everyone’s memory malfunctions. I read Daniel Schacter’s book The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, which categorizes the essential malfunctions of memory and articulates many of the ideas I reference in my paintings and drawings. Memories are never set in stone; one “chooses” to recall certain details or events if the recollection is essential and powerful enough. Individual memories are weak or strong because of their purpose and how often those particular memories are accessed.In the paintings of previous spaces I’ve inhabited, I am interested in creating these warped perceptions of space, because my memories of those spaces are certainly already distorted. Wall with Columns is based on my old studio in Baltimore that had two very prominent but annoying columns directly in the center of the space. When I begin a piece, I often ask myself, "What are the main players in this piece and why?" In this particular painting, it was the columns. I wanted the columns to seem more monumental and intrusive than they actually were. I highlighted that importance by repeating their forms through a line drawing in the background. The green outline is not definitive; the viewer could be looking at a door or window, a hole in the wall specifically cut for these two columns to slide through, or an object resting against the wall. There is a significant connection between art and remembering for me; both rely on individual interpretation to perceive what is or is not authentic.
OPP: In 2011, you drew 73 jerks from your personal history, documenting them only by their hairstyles. The cataloging of personal data and memories transformed into a stripped-down graphic rendering is a strategy you use repeatedly, as in 17 Bedrooms and Paintings on a Map. 73 Jerks stands out in its representation of the human form. What made you shift gears from the spatial paintings you were doing before?
CSW: I need to feel challenged in the studio, and the paintings had become too easy for me to figure out. It was like my hand and brush were so trained they knew exactly where to start and what to do. I was restless. In June 2011, I did a residency at The Wassaic Project in Wassaic, New York. I went there intending to work on those paintings, but for several months before that I had been considering a project about all of the jerks I’d ever known. I felt timid about actually following through. The jerk project would be so different visually, but conceptually it was connected to the spatial paintings; visually, it translated as an examination of my personal narrative and memories. By the time I arrived at the residency, the jerks were stuck in my head.
I had brought several yearbooks from my schools with me as well as numerous photographs that my mom had just given me. I meticulously went through all of my sources and took notes about who I was considering including and why. After only four days at the residency, I had already finished all 73 of the drawings. I decided to work chronologically so that the drawings would create a sort of timeline. In order to keep the figures nonspecific and thus universal to viewers, I drew only the hair of each jerk.
OPP: Did you enjoy making the drawings?
CSW: It was interesting to spend the 20-45 minutes drawing each hairstyle and thinking about why I was including that particular person in the series. I’m not sure what made me decide to quantify the jerks and think of them like data in a science experiment, but I had a blast making the graphs and attempting to write very analytically about the correlations between age, gender, hair and one’s likelihood of being a jerk to me. I highly enjoyed making 73 Jerks, but it is a project that I am only going to explore once. I have no intention of creating another volume of jerks and honestly hope that I don’t have to.
OPP: Quoting from your statement for your project Paintings on the Map: "This project is a continuation of my exploration into architectural spaces as containers for memories. I began by completing a series of paintings based on eleven residences significant to my personal narrative. Combing through photographic sources, I attempted to capture what I felt was the most memorable aspect of the space when I occupied the residence." Could you talk about the interactive aspect of the project that followed the creation of the paintings? How did this project get at your interests in a way the paintings alone could not?
CSW: Paintings on the Map grew out of the 4" x 6" studies I was doing earlier this summer. My husband and I recently moved from Baltimore to Maine. Before we left, we met the couple that was moving into our Baltimore apartment, which was a space I absolutely loved. I had this urge—and felt it my duty—to communicate to the new occupants why and how much I loved this apartment, in the hopes that they would value the space as much as I did. I recognized that the painted studies were postcard-sized and wondered what would happen if I sent a small painting through the mail as a postcard to the new tenants. And what if I sent a piece of art to other strangers who currently live in my past dwellings? They have no idea that we are connected to each other through the history of a place. Would the admission of "I used to live in your house" make the current residents feel uncomfortable?
I decided to write a QR code and web address on the backside of each card, which offers an explanation as to what they were looking at. I was aware that my handling of the imagery on the card might be difficult for the resident to understand or access. I also loved the idea that the card could serve as a gateway to more information that exists on a Google Map, and it was up to the recipient whether or not they access that information. In my introduction to the online map, I provided my contact information and asked recipients to please send me a photo of the painting in their home. I also asked them to share any memorable experiences they’ve had in their space. I was a little pessimistic about getting any replies, but two recipients sent me photographs and shared stories about their current homes. I was ecstatic to see my painting hanging in the place it was based on. It was as if an extension of myself was living in that space again. There was also something wonderful about sending a gift—especially one that could be mistaken as junk mail—to a complete stranger and imagining the recipient’s reaction to getting a weird piece of art one day in their mailbox.
OPP: You recently curated Methods of Exchange, which also involved the mail. It was the inaugural exhibition at Points North, the new art space you run with your husband Jason Irla in a retired horse barn in Farmington, Maine. This particular curation involved your sending all the invited participating artists painted postcards in exchange for the pieces they sent you to show in the exhibition. Do you see this exchange of work as part of your artistic practice?CSW: I don’t know if this sort of exchange will continue in my artistic practice, but I certainly want it to continue outside of that in my daily life. I sent handwritten letters and care packages to friends all the time when I was younger, but as I got older and took on more commitments, it became difficult to continue that kind of giving. I couldn't justify it in the age of convenient, online communication. But I was determined to not let moving to rural Maine become a death sentence to my social life and art career. I still feel that there is no excuse for giving in to the isolation here when there are so many ways to keep up with the rest of the world. Method of Exchange was my way of introducing the Farmington community to a group of artists that my husband and I are excited about and want to share. The show was also about forming broader conversations about home and distance. I might not be able to travel to your home in San Francisco, but for only 45 cents my small painting can get there in less than a week.
OPP: Recently you've been working in three-dimensional soft sculpture? Is this the first time? What led to the shift away from painting?CSW: A very important aspect of my studio practice is that it isn't defined by medium or material. The direction of my work is dictated by the ideas. The methods necessary to complete projects are secondary to the concepts. I have a varied skill set and backgrounds in sculpture, fiber and material studies, painting and drawing. I’m confident that I can learn any other approach or technique in order to complete a project. I still consider these three-dimensional soft sculptures—specifically those in Idyllic Landscape Unit— to be paintings, because they are created with acrylic on canvas. They are simply paintings that exist in three-dimensions. More recently I've become interested in creating work that is about my current place. I could easily live in any other place and communicate visually, but there is something particular about my experiences in rural Maine. The idea of packing up a scaled-down version of my surroundings, sending them off to a completely different area of the world and allowing the viewer to imagine themselves living in this setting really intrigues me. This new work is partly about the convenience of shipping, storing and installing the landscape elsewhere, but it’s also about the effect materiality has on the reading of these models. There is something comical about using AstroTurf as a footprint for this picturesque scene of rural life or using sheep’s wool to depict the mythology of the moose up here in Maine. I’m still painting—mostly small landscape-based studies—but my focus right now is primarily on creating these three-dimensional models. I am so enamored with my new surroundings and want aspects of this setting to simultaneously exist elsewhere.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).