Chris Dotson finds symbolism in the beauty and mystery of nature 

The Human Animal

click to enlarge "Down in the Creek" - CHRISTOPHER DOTSON
  • Christopher Dotson
  • "Down in the Creek"
In the paintings of Christopher Dotson, you’ll find familiar images twisted into dreamlike exaggerations. A flock of silver birds flies through a dark sky, their wings sharp and curved like scythes, crashing into a stormy jungle of serpents. A school of blood-red fish burst through the center of the murky depths, forming a chaotic tornado of motion. His paintings, part of an exhibit called Supernatural, opening this Thurs. July 6 at the North Charleston City Gallery, seem to draw from the beauty and brutality of nature in equal measure.

Dotson himself felt that push and pull as a child; he was irresistibly drawn to nature and frightened by it at the same time.

“When I was younger I had a fear of dark places,” he says. “Dark forests, dark water. I would wander off into the woods and get lost, and I’d have to find my way home. I spent a lot of time outside, and I’d come upon things that scared me at first, but then I’d realize how beautiful they were. Like sharks, for example. They scared me but I still thought they were beautiful.”

In Supernatural, Dotson hopes to use the animals he creates as archetypes or symbols, less like Western art does and more like ancient civilizations once did.

“The concept behind it is that I think there’s a lot of art out there’s that’s about how things look,” he says. “And then there’s art that’s about how things feel. I look at the artwork from Incas and the Mayans, and they see things differently, in more of a spiritual way. I’m trying to paint what I feel about the subject matter rather than what I think I know by looking at it. So it’s kind of like I’m gaining more insight into myself than the animals I’m portraying. It’s more of a spiritual journey.”

In fact, his works are far more about the idea of how the animals might move or sound or behave than about depicting them realistically. “They convey a sense of movement and motion,” he says. “They have an energy. It’s something that imitates how fish move or birds fly. It carries a truth with it about nature, whether it’s in the arrangement or the colors. I don’t feel like it’s necessary to adhere to visual realism.”

Dotson says that many of his paintings refer to a way of living that humans seem to have forgotten, despite being part of nature themselves. “I’m reinterpreting nature and trying to learn more about the human condition by doing that,” he says. “If you look around, we’re kind of detached, in a way.”

Not that he’s excluding himself from the detachment he sees in humanity. Dotson readily admits that just like most of us, he lives in an air-conditioned home and shops for his food rather than hunting or gathering it. His point is merely that there’s been a disconnect between human beings and their primal roots.

“We’ve forgotten that there’s been a million years of evolution and it’s only very recently that we’ve lived the lifestyle that we do now,” he says. “Before that we were surviving, hunting, and gathering. We were more connected with the Earth, and we’ve lost a lot of things since then. You can’t walk through the woods and know what to eat and what not to anymore. We’ve lost a lot of knowledge. We know all about technology but not about the natural world around us.”

This message is more of a metaphorical one than a literal one, because Dotson prefers to work in indirect strokes.

“I don’t really have a narrative with the work,” he says. “A lot of it just comes out. I like to embrace the subconscious. When I start painting, there’s no plan. It just starts off. It’s a very organic process. I don’t start off with a preconceived notion or message. Your mind is more free to interpret a concept that way. It’s mostly instinctive, like when you’re walking and you aim yourself a certain way. Whether or not you get to that place is a different story.”

What’s perhaps most surprising about the exhibit is how many of Dotson’s similarly-themed paintings you won’t be seeing at the exhibit.

“A lot of times the paintings fail,” he says. “A lot of the paintings I’ve done, people will never see until I can figure out how to rework them and make them into something that is understandable in some way. After I’m finished with a painting, there’s some formalism where I look at it and try to pick it apart and see what’s right and what’s wrong with it.”

And if it doesn’t work? “I’ll put it aside,” he says. “I don’t destroy it. I wait and pull it out later and look at it and realize, ‘Oh, that’s what’s missing.’ And it goes from being a work that’s not very good to something different. The ones that are in the show are the ones that worked; they were balanced correctly, the figures were in the correct place. They convey a sense of nature that I’m trying to understand myself.”

Dotson’s work, along with artist Evie Zimmer’s will be on display in the North Charleston City Gallery throughout the month of July. The gallery is open to the public daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.


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