East City Art Reviews—Wayne Paige: Not out of the Woods

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on September 29, 2020

If you’re up for a ride in the Virginia countryside, you can just catch a small but fascinating exhibit at the Middle Street Gallery in Washington, VA of new work by Washington DC artist Wayne Paige.  Not Out of the Woods is a series of ink drawings made this year in response to recent events, and the artist’s own experiences during these dark and uncertain times.

Having taught for many years at Middleburg Academy, a private high school on a 95 acre campus that includes wooded areas outside of the town of the same name, Paige was able to maintain his studio there through the spring and early summer before the school’s final closure in mid-June.  He found himself alone out there with no one else on campus.  However, taking walks through the fields and woods he discovered that, in fact, he was hardly alone.  Nature was reclaiming the land, and suddenly he was surrounded by animals in numbers never before seen.  This deeply affected him.  In the face of all the suffering and death going on because of the pandemic, plus the violence and social upheaval that has characterized much of this year, he saw this as a sign of hope, and perhaps, of endurance.   The experience became a new source of creative energy and led him to develop an expanded narrative for his surrealist ink drawings that, as he says, always aim to “embrace conflict, dreams and humor.”[1]

Wayne Paige, The Mystery of Antler Island, archival ink on paper, 6.5”x 4.5’, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

As these drawings are very dense and carefully composed, they tend to be fairly small scale.  Yet each one is a pool of imagery for the viewer to jump into.   For a while now, since 1997, Paige has been making these intensely complex drawings depicting a black and white world that reflected the mountains, forests and pine trees of Middleburg, inhabited by humanoid beings resembling old fashioned clothes pins.  Despite their physical simplicity, the figures are highly expressive, as was amply demonstrated in the selection of his work, both in ink and oil, that were in the exhibit I curated at the American University Museum early this year.[2]  In these new drawings, Paige has become more descriptive with his human figures, and quite explicit depicting the animals who now also populate the waterways and byways of their graphic world.   As previously, Paige’s figures react to circumstances, here mostly ominous and containing perhaps more easily comprehensible references to the current state of our world played out in symbolic ways.  These drawings, some of them very small scale, invite contemplation and require time.   Despite the greater descriptive renderings, they remain mysterious and strange.

The Mystery of Antler Island is exemplary of this iconography.  In it we see bipedal figures surrounding what looks like an island in the middle of a lake fed by other waterways. The profile of a deer appears in stippling from the left.  It’s almost invisible at first as its outline grows out of the forms behind it.  This kind of jig-saw perfection of parts of the composition is typical of Paige’s drawings in general, and is pronounced in this group.  In the middle of the island rise a pair of antlers.  What ritual is going on here?  What is the meaning of the antlers in the center, while shark fins (a common symbol of danger in Paige’s repertoire) float beneath? In the sky, Paige’s “celestial armada” flies by, while cloud like forms are rising upward—the souls of the recently departed, perhaps.

Wayne Paige, Where Are They Going? archival ink on paper, 6.5” x 4.5”, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

This reference to the numerous deaths we’ve witnessed around the world and most starkly in this country is made clearer in Where Are They Going? in which a deer appears to watch clouds of souls rising upward.  The sheer density of the texture achieved with nothing more than a pen in these works is remarkable, but they surpass comment on their craft with the intelligence of their content.

Wayne Paige, The Buck Stopped Here, archival ink on paper, 6.5” x 4.5”, 2020.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

The Buck Stopped Here is an arresting image, also filled with mystery and dread.  A large figure with what could be described as an open womb stands in a field where deer-like animals tip-toe around shark fins that protrude incongruously.  Antlers grow out of the figure like arms.  Souls rise above, the “celestial armada” flies by, and black and white figures float in the water.  The central figure seems to symbolize both alarm and hope.  It depends upon who’s looking.

Wayne Paige: Not Out of the Woods, The Middle Street Gallery, 325A Middle St., Washington, VA 22747.  September 5 – October 4, 2020.  Sat.-Sun. 12-5 PM.  For more information, (540-675-1313) www.middlestreetgallery.org .

[1] Artist’s statement for this exhibit.  Paige taught at Middleburg for twenty-three years.

[2] Communicating Vessels: Ed Bisese, Elyse Harrison, Wayne Paige, American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, Washington DC, January 25 – March 15, 2020.  Exhibition and printed catalog sponsored by the Museum and the Alper Initiative for Washington Art.