Finalist No. 6: Chloe Watson

Once a sculptor, always a sculptor. Though she abandoned a three-dimensional practice while in graduate school, Real Art D.C. Finalist No. 6 Chloe Watson makes paintings and drawings exploring space and form.
By Jessica Dawson
Friday, August 13, 2010; 4:00 PM

Once a sculptor, always a sculptor?

When Chloe Watson applied to Maryland Institute College of Art's graduate program, her portfolio brimmed with works made of welded steel, wood and found objects. 3-D was her thing. Yet by the time she received her MFA in interdisciplinary studio art this May, there wasn't a single sculpture in her studio.

What happened?

For one, she lost her grandfather, a former woodworker and engineer. When he died, he bequeathed her a trove of tools that she was reluctant to use. Instead of putting them to work, she committed them to paper. Sketching them was her way of honoring her grandfather's life work.

Then, over the summer, Watson's zest for construction foundered. While attending a Vermont Studio Center residency aimed at honing her sculptural skills, she decided to draw and paint instead. She drew sculptures that she might once have realized in three dimensions. And she got excited about flouting gravity in these new imagined spaces.

Today, Watson is an unabashed formalist, making artwork about light, form and space. She plays with cardboard cutouts and then draws them, creating the ambiguous forms that wind up in her paintings. She also obsesses about wood and its iterations: the wood panel she paints on, the wood grain that she draws by hand and the faux-wood of printed contact paper (the stuff used to line bookshelves and drawers) that she adheres to her canvases. She often combines all three in an artwork.

When I toured her studio on a steamy August afternoon, she showed me her latest efforts.

"Gossip" was my favorite. Though it comes off as quite ordinary, the painting is a sharp evocation of three-dimensional space played out in two dimensions. Sure, the scene is banal: an open cardboard box sits on the floor; a primed, blank canvas leans against a wall; there's a hint of a room and its walls and floor, but colors are muted and none of the objects are articulated in detail. Everything feels generic.

Yet somehow Watson has animated that box and canvas, imbued them with personality and life. They could almost be speaking with each other (hence the work's title). The space around them, too, gives off energy. We can't quite grasp the lay of the land -- it's as if the room were both flat and three-dimensional at once.

As I was bidding adieu, Watson told me about her current obsession: the swabbed-out areas on highway overpasses and buildings where authorities have painted over illegal graffiti. She calls them graffiti buffs. Watson sees lots of them in her travels; now she photographs them. To her, these blank spaces are rich with meaning. Her next works will explore these makeshift holes in the urban landscape.

Chloe, you've got a good eye and analytic sense. I'm excited about the graffiti buffs -- what strange patches of visual information they are -- and look forward to seeing what you can do. Keep me posted!

© 2010 The Washington Post Company