The Audacious Creativity 
of Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner's 2016 installation, Hyperbolic, in Lodz, Poland

Crystal Wagner
Crystal Wagner's 2016 installation, Hyperbolic, in Lodz, Poland
Artist Crystal Wagner uses bold colors and unconventional materials to make her mark on and off the wall.

Artist Crystal Wagner uses bold colors and unconventional materials to make her mark on and off the wall.

Crystal Wagner

Alluvion, 2016, installed at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

“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 sold out exhibitions of the 3-dimensional terrarium-like boxes she creates. Wagner fills these boxes with her own spectacularly colored screen prints, which she 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 but found alive. These works begin in 2 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 take 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 spaces created 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 that has found its way into the museum and collapsed. The intriguing structure evokes a child-like wonder, making us 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 up the brick façade of the building. Wagner loved the idea. 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.

Crystal Wagner, Spire, 2016
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Spire, 2016, installed at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art

Crystal Wagner, Biotica, 2015
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Biotica, 2015, installed at 108 Contemporary, Tulsa, OK

Crystal Wagner, Traverse, 2018
Sam Simon

Crystal Wagner, Traverse, 2018, currently on view at Burlington City Arts, Burlington, VT

Crystal Wagner, Traverse, 2018
Sam Simon

Crystal Wagner, Traverse, 2018, currently on view at Burlington City Arts, Burlington, VT

Crystal Wagner, Traverse, 2018
Burlington City Arts

Crystal Wagner, Traverse, 2018, currently on view at Burlington City Arts, Burlington, VT

Crystal Wagner, Elasticity, 2015
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Elasticity, 2015

Crystal Wagner, Flux, 2016
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Flux, 2016, installed at Bedford Gallery, Walnut Creek, CA

Crystal Wagner, Pseudoscape, 2014
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Pseudoscape, 2014, installed at Makery Gallery, Hawaii

Crystal Wagner, Wanderlust, 201
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Wanderlust, 2015, installed at the National Museum of Singapore

Crystal Wagner, Aether
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Aether

Crystal Wagner, Aphotic II
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Aphotic II

Crystal Wagner, Bio Bloom VII
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Bio Bloom VII

Crystal Wagner, Hyper Burst
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Hyper Burst

Crystal Wagner, Nexus Box
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Nexus Box

Crystal Wagner, Verdant IV
Crystal Wagner

Crystal Wagner, Verdant IV

In discussing her process, once an invitation is made, a budget is approved, and a schedule is determined, Wagner is astoundingly at ease, 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.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

With an MFA from Boston University, Cynthia Close was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.