Silver lining: Witt shines as LYdM shutters

Clay Witt, "Tree of Life."

Dark days have descended, both literally– the Winter Solstice is December 21– and figuratively, as three of Charlottesville’s major art venues, Sage Moon, Migration, and grande dame Les Yeux du Monde, prepare to close. But if the lights must go out, at least Les Yeux du Monde is first sending up fireworks.

Clay Witt’s tour de force, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” is the gallery’s last show in its current location. To call Witt simply a mixed-media painter does a disservice to the unusual materials–rust, crushed coral, metallic leaf, polymer emulsion, and intaglio prints–he incorporates into his layered and textured pieces.

The 12 works on display include several small studies that reveal how Witt plays with ideas and techniques he later develops into larger paintings. Beautiful in their own right, these studies offer viewers insight into the artistic process. Paintings don’t spring fully formed from an artistic well; rather, they’re the result of repeated experimentation and consideration of what works and what doesn’t.

But these smaller pieces are like appetizers for the feast of Witt’s six large paintings. Set in the woods at night, each opulent work features a dark background alive with glimpsed outlines and seeming movement in the shadows. Gilded trees are the central focus of most of Witt’s symmetrical compositions, their gold or silver surfaces raised and afire with stylized flames reminiscent of Tibetan iconography. Spirituality is a key component of these works, as reflected in their often Biblical titles, but Witt seems less interested in proselytizing than in creating scenes of mystery and wonder.

In two instances, Witt’s compositions deviate into asymmetry, and these are perhaps the strongest works in the exhibition. In “Lazarus,” an obscured tree still forms the center of the painting, but it is engulfed in a chaotic swirl of oxidized gold sparks and embers (or fireflies). With a lacquer-smooth background shifting like smoke between grey, mauve, purple and black, the effect is hypnotic.

But the piece de resistance of Witt’s show is its namesake, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” This painting moves from near blackness on the left to a world tantalizingly illuminated by an inferno on the right. As flames swallow an almost invisible wrought-iron cage, the blaze reveals animals– a rhinoceros, a tiger, a wild boar, a dog, and others– watching together from within the woods.

Witt’s dark yet dazzling show enables Les Yeux du Monde to go out with a brilliant bang.

Clay Witt’s exhibition, “The Peaceable Kingdom,” is on view through December 31 at Les Yeux du Monde. 500 West Main St. 973-5566.