Chris Watts Redefines Southern Art

Artist Chris Watts

In the midst of what some are calling Charlotte’s “art renaissance,” artist Chris Watts’ work doesn’t play it safe or small. Rather, Chris Watts has chosen to use his art to challenge conventions and to raise conversations around cultural hierarchies and some of the most pressing socio-political issues of our time. In 2019, Watts has held a studio in the prestigious McColl Center for Arts + Innovation, and his recent work was displayed in the Elder Gallery’s Transparency exhibit.

His art employs multiple media. But Watts does tend to work most foundationally with paint and drawing as he weaves together the whole of a project (that may also include video, sewing, and other mixed media). 

His hunger for art seems born of an innate curiosity and a refusal to shy away from questioning. From the dialectic between a surface and its transparency, to an assemblage of spaces where the distinction between what is real and what is represented is thoroughly confused, to interrogating representation and identify around black narratives, Watts explores a variety of social and experiential tensions.  

Chris watts
Original art – photo credit Jamey Price

Chris Watts grew up in High Point, North Carolina, but much of his artistic inspiration evolved from summers spent in San Diego with his grandparents during high school. He decided to pursue a dual BFA in the College of Art + Architecture at UNCC. The relationships he formed helped him realize his potential; namely Maja Godlewska, Watts’ UNCC painting professor and mentor, whose prolific career as an artist firmly solidified Watts’ own decision to become one. He continued his education with graduate work at Yale, and finally, settled for good (for now, anyway) in Charlotte. 

His focus is singular, and his dedicated to creating and challenging the old guard runs deep. 

“There’s nothing more powerful than a wave of ideas whose time has arrived.”

Watts spoke to us from his studio at McColl, showing us around the new-to-him space and explaining the trajectory that brought his thus far.

What do you think has really helped you turn a love of art into an actual career pursuit?

Persistence, persistence, persistence. Embracing change. The institution that is the art world is often cold, but having good people around me helps keep everything worthwhile. 

How has the art you make evolved throughout your life?

My world changes in situations when I don’t have a place to make large scale paintings or consider installations. I used to create film projects and do post production on my computer, or render smaller sketches for future projects and mock up larger ideas. A perfect example is when I was studioless and living in Paris. In short, I didn’t make a single painting while I was there and I was seeing enough to be inspired to make several. 

You say you’re “drawn to human emotion” in your work — what about that interests you as a field of exploration?

I would say I seek to revise, interrogate, and re-examine social and personal narratives through the transfiguration of painting, drawing, video, and installations. This re-examination is not to simply supplement a new narrative but to create a project of disruption. My work often looks at black culture, its dynamics, its history, and its lineage. 

chris watts
Original art – photo credit Jamey Price

From where do you draw the inspiration for your pieces?

I find myself gravitating to themes and practices that are relevant to my current interests. Without a doubt my knowledge of artists of African decent informs my work. Artists that constantly move me are Sigmar Polke, Degas, Sam Gillian, Hammons, and Steve McQueen.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming artists or those contemplating making a career out of art?

You are a small business. So, learn business and marketing models early — art school won’t teach you that. Push the boundaries of conventional politics. That’s done by refusing America’s ideological promises of work intended for easy media consumption. Breaking that mold takes courage and the lasting reward is much greater. 

How would you describe Charlotte’s art scene, and your place within it?

There is an unrecognized renaissance of sorts happening here. North Carolina-born artists in my generation are making challenging work that’s serving as the basis of rigorous, object-based debate. Yet, this recognition is not yet happening in the Southern museums, or the galleries; and honestly, I’m not sure if some communities here are ready for it. But we are here, and we will document this crucial time. We will support and write about our fellow peers, championing the work and their tireless efforts… My place within it all is unique.

Where can our readers find more of your work?

In 2019, I have had work in Charlotte at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Transparency.  It’s an exhibition featuring a diverse group of artists who use materials, forms, and ideas about transparency to explore how we to see and experience the world. I will also be holding a studio at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation through the winter and spring months. 


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