There are more than 60 versions of “Peaceable Kingdom” by Quaker painter Edward Hicks—different iterations of all creatures great and small, sleek-coated predators and skittish prey, hunkered down together wearing expressions that could make a Zen master jealous. The “Peaceable Kingdom” series comes from a line the Old Testament prophecies of Isaiah (and, for brevity’s sake, Curtain Calls draws from the King James version): “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.”
All this zoological camaraderie is supposed to be about the promise of salvation and the suspension of sin, but it’s eerie to see. In many of Hicks’ kingdoms, adult humans are visible, but never central; the draw is the collection of beasts, the suspension of their routines and their shell-shocked eyes.
Clay Witt finds his way through the forest with a series of exquisite new works, which will see the light of day in a December exhibit.
“I’m immensely interested in folk art,” says Clay Witt, his finger tapping lightly against the book he holds, illustrating one of Hicks’ scenes, then carries on. “Quaker art, Shaker art…” Witt half-chuckles, closes the book, then leads Curtain Calls to a table in his kitchen to look at a collection of animal etchings.
In 2006, Witt and his mentor, UVA printmaking professor Dean Dass, exhibited a collection of prints and collaborations at Les Yeux du Monde in an exhibit called “Dark Light,” one of the most ambitious bodies of work by local artists in recent memory. Immense, multi-step prints like “The Conference of the Birds”—a 4′ by 7′ lunar field, with an explosive central iris of lapis lazuli and rust—sold big and announced Dass and Witt as both well-suited collaborators and skilled colleagues. The aftershock of Witt’s exhibit left many viewers as bewildered as Hicks’ creations, as if they’d witnessed a small tremor of some immense shake-up to come.
And shake we will. Although Les Yeux closes its doors at the end of June, Witt says that the gallery still plans to show a collection of his recent work in December of this year.
“I really want to make sure that I have the right venue for Clay’s work,” says Lyn Warren, director of LYDM. “It’s so important.”
Witt’s recent work, according to the artist, stays true to his interest in “a central, totemic image,” as he puts it. “Tree of Life,” a 2007 piece that won the juried “Artivism” competition at the McGuffey Art Center, continued the theme, but the four more recent pieces hanging in Witt’s home are more patient, studied explorations of the layered darkness that the artist has pursued and refined for years.
“My work is very redundant, self-repeating,” Witt says, again with a chuckle that suggests the artist’s warm sense of comfort with his world. “There must be an easier way to do things, but I always considered it a meditative process—I self-consciously draw it out.”
Witt’s work is all about alchemy and time, the pairing of chemical processes with traditional symbolism and imagery to generate images as contemplative for a person to view as they are for the artist to create. Witt speaks with Curt about the chemistry at work—layered trees made of Japanese paper, the contentious process of emulsion played out on walnut panels, how water gilding and hyde glue intensify gold and how gold is tempered by rust.
Of the four pieces Witt shows CC, the highlight is “Burning Bush.” The very construction of the piece eludes simplicity: Each patiently hand-cut tree is part of Witt’s drawn out process, but part of another layer of shadowplay for viewers to work their way through. Mica moonbeams split through the branches to shine upon a white gold tree engulfed in flames of rust; there is generation consumed by time in a single tree, surrounded by a forest ready to repeat the violent act.
Back in the artist’s kitchen, Witt presides over a ring of paper animals he’s modeled after images from a 19th-century encyclopedia, creatures he plans to pair with a burning Victorian cage inspired by Hicks. Witt says that he plans to collage the animals onto a canvas to give them depth, then leads Curt into his basement studio.
The 5′ by 4′ panel of walnut—the animals’ canvas—is already murky with gesso, ready to be populated with the chemicals Witt will use against each other. From the ceiling hang tendrils of paper trees that, from beneath, look like roots. Witt points out the spot where he’ll place the burning cage, another central totem.
“I want my paintings to be as dark as possible,” he says, “but still retain a sense of receding space.” Curt leans in closer to look, overturning the shadows on Witt’s canvas and uncovering more shadows that beget more shadows. It occurs to him that the crucial difference between Witt and his audience is that, with each new work, viewers are drawn further into his canvases while Witt emerges, wide-eyed and dauntlessly moving towards the light.
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