Crystal Wagner: The audacity of the creative individual

by Cynthia Close

“Curiosity is a tool!” emphatically states multi-disciplinary artist Crystal Wagner whose sprawling installations can be seen bursting the confines of gallery walls and clinging to the outside of buildings from Lodz, Poland to bucolic Burlington, Vermont. Wagner has harnessed that tool since kindergarten when her artwork featuring fantastical birds won an award. Encouraged by supportive parents, she understood art to be a distinct and important discipline long past the age when youthful exuberance and individuality is crushed by demands to conform and “go along” with the crowd.

While her childhood artistic gifts were evident Wagner admits that “I needed art school, I needed data.” In the course of seeking that “data” she earned a BFA from the Atlanta College of Art in 2004 and received her MFA from the University of Tennessee in 2008. As she acquired her skills she also knew, “None of these people can tell me how to make the work. You can’t teach people to be generators.” Wagner managed to get the best out of her academic experience without giving up the authority to do her own work. She let her curiosity propel her beyond what any of her professors taught.

After her own brief stint teaching art for five years at the college level she left academia to focus exclusively on her studio practice. This decision has reaped many rewards evident in the sold out exhibitions of the 3-dimensional terrarium-like boxes made up of her own spectacularly colored screen prints that Wagner then hand-cuts into many shapes and strips with an exacto knife. Using these cut elements as raw material she intricately weaves and creates forms suspended as if held in place by their own internal forces. The Spectrum series of boxes, most measuring 25” x 5” x 19” done in 2014 have an alluring magical quality about them. They appear like rare specimens once thought extinct now found alive by a biologist, geologist, or archaeologist. These works begin in two dimensions. Wagner finds the time to “do ink drawing every day. I have a command of my language in that medium. I’ve worked with the line and the curve all my life.” That contrast between curve and line is magnified when the flowing curves and swirling color fields of sculpted paper are restrained by the rigid edge of the boxes. Although they are abstract, Wagner explains, “These paper sculptures are resolved when I feel they could have existed in the real world.”

Wagner has achieved her greatest notoriety for her immense, biomorphic site-works that envelop the interiors and exteriors of the buildings where they temporarily have taken hold. Made of torn plastic birthday party tablecloths stuffed into the openings of chicken wire fencing these exuberant, boldly colored forms have a robust, eye-popping appeal. We are lured by the vibrant colors to enter into the space as redefined by these works. Both a comment on consumer culture and an antidote to it these installations cannot be ignored. The 2016 Spire, rising 50 feet into the rafters of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, suggests a dinosaur sized Monarch butterfly from the Mesozoic had found its way into the museum and collapsed. We are intrigued and like children we are at first wary and then compelled to explore the hollows and holes, the shadows and swelling curves that shift as we move around the undulating form.

Wagner is in the rare position of being able to turn down a lot of projects. She looks for collaborations that “give me an opportunity for growth.” One of those opportunities resulted in Traverse at Burlington City Arts Center, (BCA) Burlington, Vermont, June 29 - October 7, 2018. This was Wagner’s first installation to simultaneously incorporate interior and exterior space within one work. Heather Ferrell, BCA’s director of exhibitions was excited to be working with Wagner. It was Ferrell who suggested the possibility to expand the piece beyond the interior of BCA’s main gallery, through the front plate glass window, outside and on up the brick façade of the building. Wagner loved the idea and was able to realize it within the scheduled three-week installation period. Such flexibility and spontaneity requires a level of mutual trust rare when working on such a scale and within the parameters of a public institution.

In discussing her process, once an invitation is made, a budget is approved, and a schedule is determined, Wagner astounds me by saying, “I don’t have a plan. I walk in and start working with my material, using the space as a canvas. The second I start moving the next move is self-propagating. An intuitive conversation begins between me and the space. I trust myself to problem solve. Being a woman in the 20th century, I had to prove myself. Now, in the 21st century people trust me. It is a leap of faith.” Many institutions are willing to take that leap. She is booked solid for installations in Miami, Arizona, Italy, Switzerland, and France for the next two years.

Wagner’s belief in creativity as a catalyst for innovation, and her desire to inspire people including artists just starting in their careers leads to this advice: “Learn your marks, be aware of the way you see, and cultivate a celebration of self and individual autonomy with regards to your practice. An artist is both a philosopher and a maker. Learn who you are so that you know what you make and then make it as much as you possibly can. Only you can make your work.”

Wagner’s explosive energy and vision extends beyond her current commitments. “Fast forward twenty years and I will be designing buildings.” We believe her. It takes a leap of faith.

Cynthia Close is a contributing editor of Documentary Magazine, contributing writer for Vermont Woman, and inaugural editor for Mud Season Review. She can be reached at www.cynthiaclose.com


Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time

by Scott Lesniewski

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA

Seven internationally known contemporary artists are currently exhibited at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, as part of a group show, Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time. Officially opened on October 4th, the show will continue until January 13th, 2019. Inspired by the museum’s collection of ancient and historic tapestries, the event is a redefining of textile art.

One example of this is current Artist-in-Residence, Lee Mingwei. His installation, The Mending Project, welcomes visitors to actively engage with the process of healing through directly experiencing his art. A volunteer is seated at a long table, where high above on the surrounding gallery walls, spools of delicate, vibrantly colored thread extend downward, meeting at a neatly folded, repaired item. Various mended items can be seen on the table: a favorite shirt, a sweater, even a stuffed animal are gathered in a neat pile, identified by a tag and awaiting their owner’s return visit. The artist and the volunteers spend time with each person as they mend the items, creating an intimate experience of conversation, storytelling and textile art.

Colored threads, as thinly spun spider webs, make their way from the high walls and are woven into a once damaged garment – made stronger by the skill of the tailor’s hand, while inward emotional stitching is also being mended, through the sharing of stories. I learned from the gallery notes that Lee Mingwei was prompted to create his installation shortly after September 11th, 2001 in NYC, where he was living. Lee found calm working with needle and thread as a way to ease his anxiety over the unknown location and safety of his partner, working in the city that morning. Fortunately, they were re-united by the end of the day.

The installation is very simple. The visual display of connecting threads immediately directs the eyes upward to the walls. Each spool is brightly colored, creating a scene reminiscent of looking up at a clear night sky, filled with twinkling stars. The threads “emanating” from on-high meet at the point of the stitched repair, and a connecting of two people.

During the opening reception, the world premier (and finale) performance of Pulitzer-prize winning composer, David Lang and Sibyl Kempson’s True Pearl: an opera, in five tapestries was masterfully given by vocal group, Roomful of Teeth and musical ensemble, the Callithumpian Consort. The performance lasted less than ten minutes, but during that time the audience, seated in front of one of the very large, sixteenth-century tapestries, King Astyages Commands Harpagos To Take the Infant Cyrus and Slay Him, was treated to a radically different opera.

The opera’s creators have “responded” to five of the tapestries that tell the story of Cyrus the Great, and produced five pieces they are calling “in-ear-operas.” Each opera has been recorded and museum visitors will listen using headphones, as they view the ancient works. It’s clear that a tremendous amount of preparation went into producing the operas and the live performance, which was delivered with confidence and precision.

During the piece, female and male voices are woven between an amplified male speaking voice. Accompanied by an energetic mix of percussion and strings, each individual word is part of the tapestry, and the story being presented: the hawk, the horse, the camel. As the words of Sibyl Kempson’slibretto pass,the sound of some of the male voices is machine-like in quality, yet still very musical. Roomful of Teethsucceed in taking the human voice to unusual places, for which they are famous, and the Callithumpian Consort demonstrate an immense talent and command of their instruments.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s collection of art cannot possibly be viewed in one visit. She owned the death masks of Beethoven and of Dante, as well as hand castings of Franz Liszt – all of which are shown. Her friend, well-known portrait painter, John Singer Sargent, once had an entire room in her home for use as his painting studio. Many of his paintings are also in the museum’s collection. A return visit to hear the remaining four operas, and to see the other featured artists in Common Threads is in order.

Scott Lesniewski is a contributing editor for Brilliant Light Publishing