Hook Magazine, 2013
In Thunder, Lightning or in Rain
Throughout this month at the Second Street Gallery the mixed media artist Clay Witt can be found working in the Dove Gallery surrounded by bones, books, small vials of minerals and treasure, ocean detritus, Islamic calligraphy, copperplate etchings, pencil drawings, blocks of wax and gold leaf. Here in this pop-up likeness of his studio we get a look at the artist in situ with his palette of precious objects and see how he reverse engineers these materials into primordial splendor.
The main gallery features these creations made from his laboratory of minerals and elemental substances (lapis lazuli, mica, sodium carbonate and sulfur). He builds careful layers of pigment, clay, wax, gold leaf, ground away to receive new layers and deposits, always leaving tracks like a fossil record of events that went before. Sometimes he lets a starburst of raised gold have the last word in the final stratum, barely concealing within its wingspan the submerged shape of a solitary animal.
Witt seems to be telling a story in these paintings and the action often unfurls along the same coordinates as a stage, where ground, sky, stage left and right are fixed accordingly. This spatial organization primes us for allegory and meaning.
Forest animals, giraffes, lions, bears, and elephants, and in one case a group of octopi in a roiling sea, appear in these works in puzzling and evocative ways. They are almost always shown in profile rather stiffly like Egyptian figures heading for action but incapable of achieving it. These pictographic representations of the animal kingdom are relatively small next to the voluminous atmospheres the artist has rendered — passive witnesses seemingly indifferent to, overcome by or complicit in the environmental upheaval that breaks around them.
The layering of ancient detritus, minerals and stardust so expertly handled by the man in the room behind the velvet ropes, determines how the story unfolds.
Because not all the works have creatures in them we are left to wonder about the role they play. When these ancient clouds burst from the ground without the animals there to absorb the moment (because they are absent or concealed), we tend to lose reference to scale. This absence can alter the gaze of the viewer, bringing us up close and inviting us to visually excavate the forms from these exquisite surfaces in search of the mystery.
The effect is different when the beasts are waiting there, like witnesses to their own creation story. One becomes, like them, a more passive witness to the beauty. And if you read ‘apocalypse’ instead of ‘genesis’ in some of these paintings, you are left to marvel at the gentle forbearance of these beasts.
Witt’s background as printmaker, painter, calligrapher, stylist and traveler propel these beautiful paintings. He has styled a world with a calligrapher’s precision and the exaltation of a seeker.
Second Street Gallery, Charlottesville, VA