In his first solo exhibition in his home state, Logan Maxwell Hagege returns to the desert landscape that captivates his work.
By Michael Clawson
Acruelty hides in the desert’s vast expanse: the scorching sun’s unblinking eye, the poisonous creatures lurking in yawning lairs made of broken rocks and loose soil, the endless plains of sand and sage, and the retreating moisture of the desert floor rippling upward in defeat.
We look out upon the desert to admire its beauty, but in the back of our thoughts we are afraid of this place and its ability to make us feel so small in the universe. The figures within Logan Maxwell Hagege’s works gaze upon this place with a calm majesty, but their faces are reserved, frozen in silent contemplation as the sun caresses their gentle expressions of worry, doubt, fear, hope, awe, wonder—their faces are blank slates to whatever emotion the viewer finds most fitting.
Hagege remembers a time when he was younger, when he would stare out the window and marvel at how the landscape bounced and stretched from the highway as the car followed the path and contour of the road. At night he would look up at the stars and see them move. He was fearless then—and many say still fearless today—and the desert was, as terrifyingly bleak as it was and still is, a magical place, a setting where the heat and the danger were footnotes to the inherent beauty of a fantasy with green orbs of sage sprouting from the dirt, sunsets in orange and pink and green, and domes of clouds that towered to the heavens.
The California artist’s depiction of the desert and its many facets will be on view in The West, opening April 9 at Maxwell Alexander Gallery. The show, Hagege’s first solo show in California, will feature his now-classic style of painting: realistic human figures within the desert, painted in a graphic quality with bold composition, a rhythm of shadows that alternate light-dark-light-dark to accentuate form, and vividly colored scenery rendered in a flat simplicity that brings out the detail and shape of his figures. Think Edgar Payne or Maynard Dixon done with a contemporary edge.
“The landscape is what originally brought me to the West. That’s where I started out and where I stayed until I learned what I wanted to say about the desert. Some of it was just experimenting,” Hagege says, adding that his interests changed as he spent more time in his locations. “I started meeting people, and then I met more people, and I started to find my voice. Suddenly it started going deeper and deeper—first Navajo blankets and weavings, then Pendleton camp blankets, Hopi kachina dolls…a whole new world was opening up for me. Each time I discovered something it was opening up new subcategories for new discoveries.”
Hagege and his unique works have been unequivocal hits in Western art, even among the burgeoning field of contemporary artists— Glenn Dean, Mark Maggiori, Jeremy Lipking, Josh Elliott, all friends of Hagege—who are striking new paths that some of the older generations had never attempted. Not only is he in important collections from coast to coast, he has works in important museum collections, he has appeared at some of the most prestigious art shows in the country, and he has won top honors at those shows, most recently at the Masters of the American West exhibition at the Autry National Center, where he shared the winner’s circle with George Carlson, Howard Terpning, and Len Chmiel, to name a few. Any way you count it, Hagege has had a streak of recognition that doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon—on top of it all, he and his wife are expecting their first child. And although he has found great success with his figures in the late afternoon desert, he’s always leaving his options open for new discoveries to creep in.
“I never sought out to be a Western artist. When people ask what I do I don’t say I’m a Western artist. I say I paint the American landscape and Native American figures. I don’t put that label on myself simply because I want to be free to paint what I want. But the West certainly inspires me,” he says. “I’m honored that my works are collected the way they are, and that I can sell a painting in New York City as easy as I can sell a piece in Santa Fe. It’s a great place to be.”
Works in the new show once again tackle Hagege’s complex narrative of the West: the desert as a place of terrifying silence and also limitless beauty, Native American figures wearing an assortment of weavings that absorb and reflect the light of the sky and desert, and landscapes with a variety of Hagege hallmarks, including his clusters of pillowy clouds and bouquets of abstracted sage painted into the desert floor. The sage makes a prominent appearance in Far Behind, where it crowds at the feet of a horse carrying a female figure, her eyes peering into our souls from behind the paint. In The Clouds Are Moving, he paints one of his favorite subjects, Apache model Chesley Wilson, as he stands in profile against dramatically lit clouds that emerge from the horizon.
In an untitled 80-by-80-inch piece that is still unfinished, Hagege paints a number of figures as they stand facing the sun, meeting its warm rays on their own terms. It’s one of his more elaborate pieces, with many elements balanced within his cloudy desert scene.
“Everything in my paintings, every element, is used as a compositional tool to move the eye around the canvas in a certain way. It’s an intuitive thing I create when I’m painting; it’s not always obvious at first. For The Clouds Are Moving, I frame the dark side of a face against the light side of a cloud to create that repetitive element that brings out the shapes even more. Sometimes I’ll use a halo effect or mimic the shape of the figure in the shape of the clouds,” he says. “As I’m drawing and planning my composition I’ll analyze the painting and start planning some of this out. Some of it is unintentional, and others are there because I saw them and designed them into the painting. It’s like cooking: you can taste the food while it cooks and make adjustments as needed.”
Ultimately, he says, “It’s about me pushing things to see how far I can take them.”
Landscape painter Josh Elliott says he admires Hagege’s works because they speak for the artist on his behalf. “What I find so compelling about Logan’s work is his keen sense of observation and conveyance of truth with his own voice. Look at how he searches out and accurately portrays reflected light, or carefully depicts subtle gradations in his skies and shadows. He reveals these truths in a stylized manner—he is telling us how he wants us to see them. In turn, through his exaggeration or accentuation, we can see the world through his eyes,” Elliott says. “One time I was driving with my daughters in the car, and one of them said, ‘Look, it’s a Logan cloud!’” Elliot adds that his designs are complex and reveal his deep attention to the craft of painting: “Logan has a strong sense of design, his compositions are well thought out but appear to be effortless. They are iconic and command attention. They are of the best kind—deceptively simple. He guides your eye through one of his paintings, but you’re not aware it is being guided.”
But guided it is. In the square piece This Mountain of Mine, round clouds and a deep-purple mountain ridge swing your eye around the top of the painting and down onto a brown horse, the slight curve of its tail sending your gaze further down and to the left, where it climbs up the horse’s front legs, through a cluster of vegetation, past the 45-degree angle of the horse’s head and back into the clouds. It’s a square painting, but it has a circular movement that revolves around the blanket-clad figure, who, like us, is trapped in the endless possibilities of Hagege’s West.