For Stephen C. Wagner, life is a pendulum in search of balance. Sometimes the swings are modest; sometimes they are an “E Ticket” at Great America: the move from Texas to California; the differentiating of things you do at night and things you do during the day; making art and teaching the business of art; pure color abstractions and dark, mixed media explorations of the nature of man; optimism and pessimism. And always one swing tempers the other.
Stephen grew up in Texas and does not remember ever not making art. His mother was a professional artist. He had a private painting tutor in grade school. He has been exhibiting and selling his work since Junior High School. After High School, he attended the University of Texas at Arlington where he received a BFA. Then, upon graduating from college, he decided that he needed to get a “real job”. He became a Buyer for a retail company – a job that, by his account, he thoroughly enjoyed. But the siren call of art kept beaconing him. In 1998, he heeded the call. He marshaled his savings and quit the business world. He moved to California to make art full-time. The pendulum had swung.
The one thing you notice early in any conversation with Stephen is that he has a plan. Within three years, he was making a full living as an artist. He sought out and cultivated galleries. Soon he was represented by several. He also sought out and cultivated corporate dealers. And that has become, perhaps, the cornerstone of his commercial success as an artist. Recently, two of his mixed media pieces were added to the permanent collection of the Riverside Art Museum. A brief tour of his exhibition history gives one a real sense of how diversified his approach to the business side of art has been.
I was personally drawn to Stephen’s work when he recently donated and exhibited one of his pieces at the Benefit Art Auction for ArtSpan. It was a dark piece, both physically and emotionally – but with a definite underlying sense of humor, as well. For me, this was a real departure from the work that I was familiar with – his earlier pure color abstractions painted on glass – and I was stunned. How does an artist make that kind of transition? For Stephen, the answer was simple: the pendulum had swung.
When Stephen lists the artists that have most impacted him: Eduoard Bonnard, Gustaf Klimt, Mark Tobey and Mark Rothko; it is perhaps Rothko’s ability to purely explore emotion through color that most influenced Stephen’s color abstractions. He makes note of the importance of many early visits to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Stephen’s work uses a complex technique of layering paint on glass. It is reverse painting where the resulting work is finished with a mirror backing. The final paintings are luminescent. They have an emotional depth that is fundamentally, according to Stephen, optimistic. Then, along comes Robert Rauschenberg. An encounter with a retrospective of Rauschenberg’s work led Stephen to start exploring the more pessimistic side of his nature. He started to make mixed media works in dark tones with metallic pigments. Where the color abstractions were non-representational, the new works were collages of found objects, original and appropriated photographic images and words used to overtly interject context. Once again, the pendulum had swung.
In both the color abstractions and the more recent mixed-media pieces, Stephen works in series. When he exhibits the works, he generally tries to have them exhibited in a series. He likes that collectors can buy a single piece, a portion of the series, or the entire exhibited series. They can re-arrange the works. It allows his audience to connect with his work in many different ways. The mixed media pieces are primarily in two distinct series so far: the “Characterization of Man” and the “Personification of the Modern Era”. He uses the series format to fully explore all of the ideas raised by each theme. The series is finished when he is satisfied that he is done with all the ideas. At that point, it is time to move on to a new challenge, time to swing the pendulum. With “Personification of the Modern Era”, Stephen had a fellow artist draw silhouettes of his body. He then used pieces of those silhouettes as one of the elements in all works. He fused those silhouettes with elements drawn from the world around us. They are explorations of the impact of the modern world on each of us as individuals. And, Stephen is not optimistic about where that impact is leading us. With the “Characterization of Man”, this theme is explored even more overtly. Shooting targets collaged with his silhouettes and with images from the modern world clearly place us in the crosshairs. Still, the works are not unrelenting. He cannot help but interject some playful elements into virtually every piece. As always, there is a continuing search for balance.
Recently, Stephen has opened yet another new chapter in his life. Making art is generally a solitary, isolating process. In his personal life, he has structured in a social component. As a rule, he devotes the day to getting out and mixing with the world. He makes his art late at night. Now, he has added a new venture to that mix. He started the San Francisco Artist Network. The website is a tremendous resource site for artists. The most important of those resources are the business development seminars and workshops that Stephen personally offers. He enjoys teaching and sharing what he has learned in his career as an artist about the business of art. It is, once again, a way for him to balance his life. If art is isolating, teaching is interactive. He has also started curating work for several venues, most notably the NOM-TCLBD Gallery (North of Market/Tenderloin Community Benefit District). Indeed, one of the benefits associated with participating in the SF Artist Network workshops is the ability to submit works for those juried shows.
Stephen C. Wagner will be exhibiting his work at the First Fridays group show at City Art Gallery opening this Friday, December 3rd from 7-10 pm. And, he will be part of the upcoming juried exhibition: “Dollhouse” at ARC Gallery opening this Saturday, December 4th from 7-10 pm. His work in that exhibition, “The Embodiment of Man #5”, can be viewed in the Dollhouse online gallery.