5 Questions: Pete Watts

Pete Watts (born 1984, Vermont) is an artist based in New York. He graduated in 2006 with a BFA in Printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design. In exploring humanity’s relationship with the natural world, his work depicts both the myriad technological systems essential to modern existence, and the temporal, elemental, and entropic forces that place these systems under a state of constant threat. Rendered in painstaking detail, and left unframed, the vulnerability of works themselves mirror the fragile equilibrium sustaining human life on the planet.

He currently has work in the Summer Group Exhibition at Joshua Liner Gallery.

BL: Your work takes on environmental issues, industrial and historical sites, and disaster, can you talk a little bit about how your process of rendering influences your understanding of and relationship to the subject.

PW: Creating the works I do inevitably involves spending quite a bit of time with whatever subject matter they happen to be depicting.  Initially, a lot of the drawings I was creating were coming from a source of anger or frustration; based on the contradictions and shortsightedness I saw around me in capitalist society.  The destruction of our ecosystem was particularly upsetting to me, and I wanted to share that shock and frustration with the audience.  As time went on, this approach started to become really tolling, and I eventually reached a point where I decided that I was tired to focusing on things that upset me.  Since that breakthrough of sorts, I’ve been trying to explore the complexity and interdependence that supports existence on the planet- as well as spaces that symbolically demonstrate the give and take between order and chaos.

BL: Graphite gives you a sort of intimacy and detail with subject that other media may not necessarily allow you. What, besides that, is the real draw to this particular medium for you?

PW: Prior to my graphite drawings, I had been creating these really busy black and white line drawings for a number of years.  I really enjoy working within self-imposed limitations, but began to reach a point where I found myself concerned more and more with the tonal subtleties of the images I was creating, in a way that line drawings weren’t really able to address.  Once I began the first couple pencil drawings, I found myself seduced by the delicacy of the surface, and to the luminosity of the graphite.  My work explores the entropy and emergence within systems- the dynamic between order and chaos.  The relationship between the subject matter of my drawings and the physical vulnerably of the medium really seemed to echo the ideas in the work.

There’s an inferred criticism of carelessness of modern industrial practices in my work.  The material limitations facing earth seem absolutely at odds with an industrial culture built around planned obsolescence, petrochemicals and constant growth.  The simple and (relatively) organic nature of graphite drawings on paper and wood are intended as a counter thesis to this model: a mode of production based around dedications and laborious craftsmanship.

BL:  The detail, perspective, white space, and cross section technique give me simultaneous reads on the scale of your subject and I think go a long way in making the viewer think both about the subject and the larger picture. How do these things function for you as the image maker?

PW: You phrased it quite well yourself- and its something I’ve struggled trying to articulate.  As I was beginning this body of work, I had begun collecting a large number of diagrams, and I kept noticing that industrial/mechanical diagrams generally ignored ecology, and vise versa.  Since I was largely concerned with the relationship between humanity and the rest of our ecosystem, it seemed an obvious conclusion that we needed to pay greater attention to the relationship  and effects between these two seemingly separate worlds.  By depicting industrial scenes in relation to the earth around it, I’m hoping that the viewer begins to consider the larger impact that these scenes are having on the future of the planet.

BL: Who are some of the artists that you call an influence?

PW: Toba Khedoori, Julie Mehretu, Mark Lombardi, and Hans Haacke, and Ron Fricke (the director of Baraka) have all had a significant influence on my art.  Documentary photographers like Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Edward Burtynsky have also really informed how I think about the function of my art in society.  Less obvious influences would be Spike Jonze, Mike Mills, Ryan McGinness, Social Realism, and WPA-era posters- work that transcends the conventional boundaries between art and design.

BL: I would love to hear what your thoughts on the idea of a body of work are.

PW: To me, a body of work signifies a group of works that are focused around a central theme, and which typically have a consistent aesthetic and medium.  I’m actually a little unsure of this definition though- because I feel like a lot of artists, especially when their work is particularly detailed or realistic end up also creating work that can be much faster, looser, and simpler than their ‘normal’ work.  This seems to be the inevitable response to working within such limited guidelines, and in some ways, separating it from the rest of their artistic output seems to impoverish the audiences understanding of their work.  Dan Colen is a good example of this- an artist who will hang meticulous oil paintings next to a text-based, monochromatic aerosol painting that may have taken all of thirty seconds to create.

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