Clay Wagstaff embeds his curious and compelling landscapes with self-conscious traces of his process. Exposed grids—lines sketched on the canvas that bleed through the oil paint—materialize in skies over seas, trees and shorelines. Evidence of an order underneath, this overt gesture on one hand telegraphs a desire to control and on the other acknowledges an almostness to Wagstaff’s efforts to replicate nature. “A Natural Order” was this Utah-based artist’s second exhibition at Sears Peyton. Like “Dynamic Symmetry,” his last (2007), its title refers to theories of Leonardo da Vinci concerning laws of natural design.
Wagstaff often contrasts paired things in his paintings (here 2008 or ’09), a duality apparent in his execution as well. His brushstrokes are rough and broad, uneven, in the skies, streaked in muted colors precisely selected to portray hazy days. At the same time, his focus on minutiae is fierce, as in Ocean No. 23, at 36 by 80 inches among the largest works on view, in which detailed ridges on the faces of two giant boulders make them look like embroidered tapestry. An almost paint-by-numbers quality isolates each pool of shade on the rocks and the dark spots in the light gray-green waves and foam breaking on the sand.
Some of the tension in this work stems from the contrast Wagstaff establishes between the paired elements, where one is idealized, nearly perfect, and the other appears flawed and, perhaps, more realistic. Two treetops, alone, are rendered in vivid relief, as in a Japanese print, against a mustard yellow background in Tree Silhouette No. 3; one tree is whole and healthy while the other appears skeletal.In Birds with Crescent Moon, what look like vultures rest on the uppermost branches of another pair of evergreens. Here, one treetop is symmetrical, crowned by an opened-wing vulture, while the other is roughly shaped, with four stooped avians seemingly too big for their perches, a delicate menace.
Still, there’s something soothing in Wagstaff’s straightforward, undramatic settings, a sense that the world, as this artist depicts it, is quiet, calm and manageable—an effect that is heightened when we step away from the paintings. At a remove, the vultures are just birds, and you don’t notice the grids keeping chaos at bay. Like a stoic cousin to the Hudson River School painters, Wagstaff, with his ideas of order, draws something spiritual out of the hush he creates in his unpeopled, unsentimental landscapes.