Jerrin Wagstaff’s Ultrascapes Reckon with Reality and Romanticism in America

Jesslyn Low, 15 Bytes, November 25, 2021

 

A towering, light purple mountain range punctuated with intermittent white waterfalls cascades powerfully down the top half of the canvas. The pastel purple, pink and blue of mountain and sky draw the viewer into a mystical, dreamy world. But, as the viewer’s eyes descends down the canvas they are brought back into a state of reality. The dreamy colors are suddenly traded for muted earth tones; and a large tree, with many bare branches, fills the center of the canvas. Behind the tree, tan-colored stone replaces the majestic purple mountain, and to its right is a yellowed pond. Reality and the romanticized are depicted side by side in a constant show of give and take. This is a common theme in Jerrin Wagstaff’s works, ULTRASCAPES!, currently at Salt Lake City’s Modern West.

 

The Salt Lake City artist’s works explore prevalent themes and ideas that permeated the creation of the United States, such as American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. These concepts are readily revealed through Wagstaff’s use of classic American landscape paintings. In creating his ultrascapes, Wagstaff first creates a collage, cutting out certain features of these classic landscapes and then adding his own elements around them. The resulting works are often vibrant and abstract as unexpected shapes and colors fill the canvas alongside the more muted earth tones of trees, cliffs, and water.

 

“Ultrascape #6” begins with a beautiful blue sky filled with white fluffy clouds. The sky makes an abrupt end as it meets a pink, barren landscape. A single muted, shadow-like tree begins to stand tall but the minute it meets the blue sky it is cut off. The meeting place between bright blue and shadowy pink is curving and jagged. The forefront of the canvas is filled with a forest, muted brown dirt and trees cutting through the blue sky and pink landscape at different points. Two tall trees rise, stretching to the top of the canvas. The collage technique Wagstaff uses can be sensed by the white outline of the smaller trees on the left and right sides of the canvas and by the yellowish background that can be seen through the branches of the two towering trees. The far left corner of the canvas calls back to the pink landscape as an abstract pinkish shape begins to creep across the more muted landscape taken from classic American landscape paintings. About a third of the way across the canvas, in the foreground, a bear laying down to eat his recent kill, a deer, can be seen. This little detail is easy to overlook but its inclusion makes for some interesting musings over its purpose in the canvas. Could it perhaps be a symbol of the cruelty felt by Native peoples at the hands of our forefathers who took their lands and justified it through their romanticized beliefs concerning America’s expansion as inevitable, its people as superior?

 

Wagstaff expands his abstraction in works such as “Ultrascape #12” and “Ultrascapes #11.” The first work has a pixelated feel to it. A green funnel shape placed in between tan sides takes up the top half of the canvas. Small abstract shapes colored pink and purple descend along the constantly curving right side of the funnel. Two yellowish clouds, that have an almost rectangle shape with tails, are placed in the greenish funnel. This funnel ends in a jagged line beneath which a strip of dark green lays across the canvas, in the background. The dark green gives way to a pastel lake and waterfall with wispy water. An unexpected abstract green shape rests as if floating, in front of the water. The far right of the canvas features a collaged cliff, with a white outline around the trees resting on top. About halfway across the canvas from the bottom, two slim but pixel-like shards (with sharp, rectangular juts and dips) stretch up in pinkish and white huesWagstaff’s paintings are a detailed and refreshing experience to view.

 

“Ultrascape #11” is filled with abstract shapes of different colors. The top of the canvas is filled with sky and one shape near the middle bottom features some small trees. Outside of these two sections, though, the rest of the shapes and textures are unrecognizable. Pinkish hues are intermingled with tan and brown. At the center of the work a small bright blue blob draws the eye. The bright reds and dirt brown colors around this spot of blue gives the canvas an over all warm feeling, as if one was trekking through desert to a small oasis of water.

 

Wagstaff’s works are eye-catching; they draw the viewer in easily. The contrast of colors and unexpected abstract shapes makes these works feel new each time you look at one. In addition to their formal qualities, these works lay classic American ideals of the past, which always placed America at the center, against current discussions and movements, which strive to upturn these Americentric ideologies through the use of abstraction.  ULTRASCAPES! is both visually striking and ideologically relevant.

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