Clay Wagstaff Paints Kaleidoscopic Skies and Malibu Seas in a Distinctly West Coast Palette

Clay Wagstaff’s curious compositions elude easy comprehension. Although they are large in scale, some extending up to six feet, they appear to have been picked over with a fine-toothed comb. The froth of a receding tide swirls with precision and purpose, and the wild silhouetted contours of a tree have somehow been brought to ground, tamed by the rigorous discipline of Wagstaff’s hand into crisp submission. There is a Zen-like balance to his compositions, which are generally arranged around a solid central form—a cluster of trees or a humped boulder—and contain distinct yet harmonious parts: sky versus land, earth or sea, foreground and background.

Wagstaff received his adult education in California—an MA and an MFA from Cal State Long Beach followed his Bachelor’s Degree from Brigham Young—and his works are shaped by a distinctly West Coast palette and sensibility. But their languid first impression is countered by a range of other, surprisingly dissonant formal elements that result in an ambiguous sense of place and time. Flat hazy skies might depict the first blush of dawn or the end of a day, and sunsets literally dissolve into night. The disjunction is as geographical as it is temporal: a work like Moon no. 11, presumably titled after the shimmering round orb suspended above the horizon,might depict a Northern Californian agricultural expanse or the surface of Mars.

The artist’s deliberately indeterminate locations—and subjects—are echoed in the strange and unpredictable way he renders them, juxtaposing photorealistic moments with nearly illegible abstractions. The subtly modulated branches and needles of the trees populating Poplar no. 22, for example, are so meticulously delineated that they appear to have been carved directly into the flat surface of the panel, but the vaguely rust-colored sky behind them is as brushy as an under-painting. Contrail no. 4 seems to have been compressed by an industrial canner. The majority of the composition is occupied by a gradient sky streaked with blossoms of cloud or smoke, leaving almost no room for a complex and multi-layered foreground that begins with a range of far-off gray mountains, moves into miles of green plain, and culminates in a strip of white, fuzzy bushes: or are they sheep? No matter: as Wagstaff himself has articulated, his original compositions manage to integrate “cosmos (strict order) and chaos (complete disorder)” into something that feels miraculously like “wholeness.”

—Emily Nathan

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