Clay Witt's "Ultra Marine,"; Les Yeux du Monde; Through January 2

Clay Witt’s images stand out, not just for his painstaking approach to creating them, but in the literal sense: mounds and eddies of gold bulge from his canvases like sculpture, pushing the gallery’s light around.

In works like “Leviathan”—a work in cut paper, mineral pigment, polymer emulsion, gesso, gold leaf and rust on canvas mounted to panel—Clay Witt pushes his working materials to their natural limits. Witt speaks at the gallery on December 5 and hosts a holiday lunch December 8. Visit for details.

In “Ultra Marine,” the local painter installs another mythic landscape of foggy horizons and gilded beasts at Les Yeux du Monde, on display through January 2. Where his last exhibit depicted a “Peaceable Kingdom” of animals in bleary lands devoid of people, Witt’s latest work takes this approach to the ocean. Fish, waves, octopi and extinct birds drawn from 19th-century illustrations float in complex, multi-layered scenes the artist describes as post-apocalyptic. Together, they let visitors step easily into a world where fire floats on the water and an unnamed exodus plunges a funnel of countless fish into the murky depths. 

If the themes of the exhibit don’t excite your particular tastes, there’s a good chance the craftsmanship will. To call Witt’s work painting would be like describing NCAA sports as an exercise program for students. Over the two months it can take a single piece to emerge, Witt will apply layers of gilding, clay, gesso, ink, emulsion, cut Japanese paper, varnish and wax, then strip away strategic bits with tools ranging from a rag to an automotive sander. 

“I’m building a world,” he says. Where you see hundreds of fish, there are likely hundreds more hidden within the piece so he can make the image three dimensional by rubbing away translucent coats of material. To depict a circle of fire on the ocean, Witt fed a digital image of waves into his computer plotting cutter, so he could apply the resulting slivers of paper to the canvas in layers to create depth. The flames are water gilding, a delicate process that involves films of gold so thin they come packed 250,000 sheets to an inch and disintegrate when touched with bare hands.

“I do these gold surfaces and then destroy them,” the artist says, “almost as a corrective to this preciousness.”

That’s not entirely true. The gold in his work may be obscured or coated with strategically cracking varnish in places, but it still shines brilliantly where it needs to and gives the images their trademark contrast. Don’t trust the newsprint reproduction on this one. If you want any sense of what this stuff looks like, its metallic element requires you see it in person. 

For his part, Witt’s background is as multifaceted as his work. He picked up gilding when a frame shop where he once worked needed help with an urgent restoration job. He apprenticed in Arabic calligraphy in Syria after degrees at UVA and the University of Massachusetts. At the opening, Witt greeted gallery visitors wearing an impeccable pinstripe suit with a white satin pocket square. But the ink stains around his fingernails let on to the long hours in the studio with his dog, Agnes, contemplating the way animals see the world and pushing the limits of half a dozen materials at once. The fruits of his labor are visually intriguing and unlike anything you’re likely to find from another artist.

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