Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Clay Wagstaff’s Detailed Paintings are Symbolic by Design

Clay Wagstaff, “Light on the Rock,” 50 x 72 in.

Seen across David Ericson’s luminously sunlit gallery, Clay Wagstaff’s “Light on the Rock,” a landscape of two trees that join at their crowns so the space between them forms an arch, clearly reveals a vertical line that is not part of the image, but appears to divide the whole work in two. Panel paintings in particular often have such divisions, and Wagstaff is known to paint on both canvas and panels — often doors converted to his use — and so the line at first suggests something like that. Coming closer, however, it’s soon apparent that it’s not a crack; it’s a pencil line, the most visible of several, and rather than left to remind viewers that this remarkably real looking landscape is, in fact, a work of representation — as one might otherwise conclude — it is one of the most important parts of what the artist wishes to communicate.

Design observed in nature constitutes one of the more popular arguments for the existence of a higher order — whether a Creator or an inexplicable, mathematical ground is up to the observer. It does, though, seem to rule out the possibility that everything in the universe is a chaotic accident. How else explain that the same spiral governs both the shell of the Chambered Nautilus and the seed placement on a giant sunflower? Then there’s the all-but undeniable argument, discovered by the Greeks and called “symmetry,” which meant “balance” to them, that certain geometric relationships are more attractive to human eyes: almost as though we each contain some sort of biological slide rule.

But I’m making light of something that can be very serious in practice. Many of the best works of mankind, from Gothic cathedrals to the Houses of Worship — or just plain houses — built by the Mormon settlers of Utah were done with the earnestness of prayers. It seems Wagstaff paints four major subjects: trees, rocks, clouds, and those clouds’ source and progeny: bodies of water. He limns each one vividly, but the choice of each seems predicated on their categorical significance as possible metaphors.

These symbolic objects are worth taking a moment to contemplate. At several places, one only a few blocks from David Ericson’s, one can see utterly convincing stones that, paradoxically, were cultured like pearls by artist Colour Maisch, who takes the view that geology, like all of nature, is a process, not a set of permanent objects. Yet Wagstaff’s painted stones, two of which are present here, arguably take an even longer view, from the New Testament admonition that to build a Church for eternity, build it on a foundation of stone. Yet each symbolic category is equally amenable to other readings: rivers can represent time, clouds may be dreams, and trees are like people, each one an individual that reveals its character and displays its history.

Clay Wagstaff, “Rock No. 6,” 24 x 24 in.

While Wagstaff is the type of painter who doesn’t follow a single formula each time out, he does favor certain techniques. He often begins a panel painting with a broadly-brushed layer of gesso to give the surface some texture, followed by glazes that introduce color and detail without masking the underpainting. That white bark on so many trees is often just the primer showing through, though it looks like the last part painted. A similar reversal can be seen in the way he inverts viewer distance. Usually, a representational painting looks most real at a distance. As the viewer comes in closer, it breaks down into brush work and painterly application. Experts may come closer, studying the paint handling with a magnifying glass in order to identify the artist. Wagstaff’s technique, as witness the pencil lines and heavy primer, identifies him from a distance. As the viewer approaches, though, details like foliage do not break down. Rather, they hold up and so refuse to reveal the secret of their construction.

In addition to Classical symmetry, Wagstaff practices an American visual system that was invented before 1924 by Jay Hambidge, called Dynamic Symmetry, which is based on the ways plants and animals grow. It’s influence can be seen in the variously proportioned boxes that appear faintly in some of his paintings. They do not, however, affect his basic belief that beauty arises from a combination of harmony and chaos, such as the gravitational balance that keeps a tree standing and so able to support the patternless growth of its foliage. So Clay Wagstaff’s several principles of design, and practices of execution, are finally liberating, not constraining. Arguably they are a sign of his intention to point the viewer not to the painting’s creator, but to what he believes is the source of its subject matter.

Clay Wagstaff, “Salt Flats no. 4,” 18 x 36 in.

Clay WagstaffDavid Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Mar. 13

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