Bound free

The idea for Jason Watson’s new exhibit, Tether/Leash, popped up during a day he spent at the beach. But the subject matter explored in this installation at Zone one contemporary gallery — the young Watson’s first nonstudent show — is anything but, well, a day at the beach.

How about near-death from dysentery in a charity ward in Mexico, for starters?

“I was beginning to think about all [the] events that had gone on and were going on in my life, and how they were a tether — because they were protecting me and keeping me anchored to reality and my history and memory — and they were also a leash, because they restrained me,” says Watson, explaining the show’s origins. “Pretty much everything I looked at … was so much two sides of the same coin. It wasn’t black and white, good and bad. It was more of a paradigm shift.”

In his artist’s statement, Watson describes having, during that fateful day at a North Carolina beach, “an urge to swim out past the horizon line, to cross over the edge and break the bonds between possibilities unknown and familiarities known too well. But I always resist. Here is what keeps me from crossing that line: these words, these images, these events and moments, these regrets and subtle victories, these responsibilities, the bitterness of memory, the softness of nostalgia. It is my tether. It is my leash.”

To explore ideas of memory and the personal past, Watson produced six pairs of 49-by-31-inch mixed-media works, plus a three-piece epilogue, all drenched in shades of deep red, orange, black, gold and silver.

Each pair sets up a tether/leash dichotomy, displayed on opposite sides of the gallery: “Crowd”/”Couple,” “September”/February,” “Icon”/”Syringe,” “Mousetrap”/”Flycatcher,” “Smirk”/”Gawk” and “Sugar”/”Salt.” Each piece is marked by a ripped-out dictionary page with the title word circled in a startling red. The epilogue features the back, spine and title page of an ancient Webster’s, together with organic, worm-like figures with ominous, lipstick-drawn red mouths. A series of simple house-like structures represent what Watson calls “storehouses of memory” — regret, rage, nostalgia, sin, shame, satisfaction, purpose and pride.

Incorporating charcoal and colored-pencil drawings, handwritten journal excerpts, stark Polaroid photographs of the items used as models for his illustrations, and such unlikely materials as pieces of toast, Watson’s work first illustrates personal narratives, then breaks them down into words, and the words down into letter icons — particularly the letter “e,” which dangles mysteriously in most of the pieces. At the rear of the gallery, a large, three-dimensional “e” is tethered (or is it leashed?) atop a cage, bathed in severe fluorescent light.

Several pairs, including “Crowd”/”Couple,” stem from the year Watson spent in Mexico as a social-service volunteer.

“Couple” (on the “Tether” side) is marked by scrawlings on a sanded, stained surface which Watson says he “wrote on, scratched out and treated like a graffiti wall on a subway. Then I started to play with the composition.” Featuring a tricycle (representing transportation, he explains) and a black-painted slice of toast, the piece explores a deeply personal incident — at once exhilarating and disturbing — on a crowded subway in Mexico.

Watson has scrawled a journal entry across the piece: “I am pressed up against this man. We stand chest to chest. He is as tall as myself. I feel his chest hair at my throat. We look in opposite directions into the crowd. Our nipples are lined up exactly. We are pushed so tight together his heart resonates a thump through my chest cavity. … The train stops, the car clears. Our eyes have never met.” Below these words, in larger letters, Watson has emblazoned the credo, “We are all slices from the same loaf.”

“Crowd,” the companion piece, deals with a parallel subway incident — only this one was much more serious: the onset of an illness that escalated until his next of kin was notified while he wallowed miserably in a low-income public hospital in Mexico City. “Crowd” also features a tricycle and a piece of toast; Watson’s journal entry reads, in part: “He is absorbed in the paper. I am absorbed in my stomach. Sharp, sharp, sharp. I remember my last sensation before blacking out on the subway. Falling into his newspaper. He must have picked me up and carried me to the platform when the train had stopped. He bought me orange juice. All I could think was, ‘Please don’t steal my wallet.’ I never got to thank him.”

Other works in Tether/Leash, like “Icon” and “Syringe,” document Watson’s hospital stay and close brush with death at age 19.

“Smirk” and “Gawk” deal with less-serious, but equally personal, issues: Watson’s feelings about waiting tables for a living. “It’s very much the idea of parody,” he explains, “but behind that humor is something a bit more sinister … “Smirk” being the server and “Gawk” being the one who is served.”

Watson, himself, was the model for all the unsettling faces in both works — two females and one male. “Gawk” features a man and a woman with frighteningly contorted faces. “Honey, Money, Honey Pie/Toss your tip between my eyes/resentment burns a warning flare/And acrid stench pervades the air/You squint and curl your nose/and glare,” Watson writes across the canvas, departing from his usual journal-entry style.

“Smirk,” highlights a woman’s face, her mouth set in a frozen smirk, with two drawings of a pig and a rough sketch of an ice tray below. An angry narrative, placed under the word “Swine,” marks the piece: “I have spent a year building up hatred, a frozen core, ready for any insult, any condescension,” it reads in part.

“Part of the original text that was on ‘Smirk’ that was kind of scrubbed away and still bleeds through — ‘The little slice of exstasy that bleeds through when we are denied what we desire most’ — is the idea of being denied what we desire most, and the pleasure that comes with it. … The more you desire something, the more you will desire it when you’re denied it. And when you receive it, half the pleasure is gone. Nothing can compare to the feeling of hunger. It’s not the food, it’s the feeling of hunger that becomes the pleasure. And I was trying to examine what that whole desire-and-satisfaction kind of equation means, and how incredibly complex it is. The pig was a piggy bank I had. … After a while, the excuse of doing something just for the cash wears thin. And the hog/swine thing was both me and the people I served. And then there was the connection between swine and piggy-bank.”

Within two days after Tether/Leash opened at Zone one, all but two of the pieces had sold — an unheard-of phenomenon, says gallery owner Connie Bostic. How does Watson feel about such burningly personal works going home with complete strangers?

“When you’re publicly showing work that’s that personal, you just have to let it go emotionally,” he explains. “One of the original reasons for putting writing into my work was that I wanted to help people get an entryway into the meaning. … But … no matter how much you write, people still enter the work in their own way and you cannot control that.

“It’s still hard, though,” he adds.

But art remains Watson’s anchor, as it has been ever since he won first place in a kindergarten drawing contest — for an illustration of a Halloween story. “When they called me to the principal’s office to get the award, I thought I was in trouble and started crying,” he remembers, adding that what still drives him as an artist had its beginnings in that incident: the idea of combining images with words, and the pleasure/pain continuum that marks his work.

“You don’t have to show or sell your drawing or ever take them out of a sketch book, but I wish more people would do it — for the experience of making marks and making images and controlling an image on the page,” he says earnestly. “That can be your world. … In a world where you’re pretty much out of control, it’s nice to have that little space.”

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