Cloudscapes: Logan Maxwell Hagege
As I drive the Ventura Freeway to Old Agoura Hills to meet the artist Logan Maxwell Hagege, the sky is full of commanding cumulus clouds. They are white, flat-bottomed, and fluffy as all hell. They are piles of freshly shorn merino sheep wool. They are bags of popcorn left on HIGH in the microwave. They are well-fluffed pillows covered in white Egyptian cotton. They are so round and spaced so politely that they almost appear cartoonish.
These clouds float slowly over the hills of Old Agoura that were recently scorched by November’s devastating Woolsey Fire—blackened hillsides now alive in lush greenery accented by the bright pops of yellow oxalis.
Hagege stands in the open doorway of his 2,000 square foot studio and welcomes the cool spring breeze as his guest. The round clouds erupt behind him and form a backdrop to his portrait. These clouds are not at all unlike the stylized clouds he depicts in his award-winning compositions of native Southwesterners among simplified landscapes.
Today, one of these particularly stately cumulus frames his head. It billows to accent his wide shoulders much like they do to his subject in his painting “Vapor” (2017) but in this brief moment, the artist is the subject.
Hagege, 39, is one of the most heavily sought after western-American artists and, most recently, won the Patrons' Choice Award for the painting, "Pursuit of Happiness" (2018) in the 2018 Masters of the American West Fine Art Exhibition and Sale at Los Angeles’ Autry Museum of the American West. His many works decorate museums and galleries across America but are sold mainly at galleries in Los Angeles, New York, and Santa Fe.
In the center of his studio, an enormous half-completed canvas is propped up on an aisle that portrays a scene he is well known for, similar to last year’s “On the Plains of Sage” (2018) where a group of modern native americans are on foot and on horseback, wrapped in colorful southwestern textiles, walking below red cliffs that resemble the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness—an ode to a landscape where Hagege owns a second home just outside of Marble Canyon, Arizona.
The scene occurs during the golden hours of the day and show-off the artist’s unparalleled mastery of lighting. On the unfinished painting, an outline of Hagege’s instantly recognizable clouds fill the sky.
“When I was in my early 20s, not long after art school where I learned how to draw and paint very traditionally, I rebelled and started painting these really simple stylized things,” Hagege says as he flips through one of his early gallery books which contains a collection of his experimental paintings.
The paintings are a series of portraits of women with a backdrop of a single, whimsical cloud copying their body positions. One is curved like a C mirroring its subject while another stretches wildly to imitate the long hair of another dancing woman. Each painting depicts a wonderful amount of motion in such stillness.
“This is where my clouds really stemmed from. It was just simplification. You could tell it was a cloud, but it was bare bones,” he says, “Soon, I started painting landscapes in the West and then started applying my own aesthetic to the subject of the West.”
Hagege is being modest.
His brother, Beau Alexander, gallery owner of Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Downtown Los Angeles, describes this early phase of Hagege’s career to me over email saying, “[Hagege] combined his traditional schooling with total abstracted realism, and today we see the clouds mimicking the shapes of the figures, the design and abstracted elements, mixed with a professional level of understanding color value, reflective light, light and shadow, thick and thin, and above all composition.”
“Each of his paintings take your eyes on a roadmap that Logan wants you to go on,” Alexander continues, “your eyes move in a way that you might not even know, but you’ll see what he wants you to see and always you’ll be brought back to a point in the painting where your journey will begin again. There isn’t another artist alive today that can do what he does.”
Looking at Hagege’s impressive set of work over the years, it isn’t hard to imagine the clouds of the unfinished painting before me in the studio being filled in with whites, greys, and purples as they copy-cat the painting’s subjects below and take on their shapes with their elaborate fluffiness. The clouds are as peaceful as Hagege’s softly spoken character during our conversation. They are as mellow as a summer afternoon of cloudspotting.
As I look around the rest of the artist’s studio, I spot an assemblage of the Southwest with a few spruces of Southern California. Hagege, afterall, is Los Angeles born and raised (the San Fernando Valley, to be exact) and currently lives in a mid-century modern home in the region.
The walls of his studio are decorated with cattle and bighorn sheep skulls, cowboy hats with colorful beaded bands, Navajo rugs, the Wyoming state flag, sketches of buttes and mesas and canyonlands, and, a “FREE PARIS HILTON” poster, circa mid-2000s.
Also scattered around the studio, is a colorful Logan-sized katsina (kachina doll), a guitar leaning against a bookshelf of mostly western art books, smaller, knee high katsinam, wooden carvings of burros, studies of southwestern landmarks like Agathla Peak, and, a bright green surfboard the artist made years ago that leans neatly against storage shelves.
“I first fell in love with the landscape of the Southwest,” Hagege says, “but naturally, I wanted to start incorporating people. So, I started putting the people that are from the region into the paintings. It was very straight forward. It made sense to paint the people from the areas.”
Many of these people, like some of his favorite subjects, and now friends, like Chesley and LeAnne, appear in his first art book, Desert Survey (2019) which recently sold out in less than two days of its launch. The book features over 150 pages of Hagege’s work beneath a bright turquoise cover, each of the 500 books intimately signed and numbered by the artist. It isn’t hard to imagine them on the coffee tables of some of his loyal 35.6k Instagram followers or in the homes of his enthusiastic buyers who purchase his full-scale works to stretch over the great walls of their home’s living rooms.
While Hagege’s clouds are remarkable and instantly recognizable, it’s what his clouds accentuate that make his paintings particularly memorable and meaningful. His choice of subjects pay tribute to an enduring heritage of cultures. Consider, for instance, “The Past is Present” (2015) a portrait diptych that shows his subject Chesley, twice. On the left, he is wrapped in a red blanket and wears a headdress that a tall cloud outlines. On the right, the man is without the blanket and headdress, but the cloud remains as lofty as if he still wore the headdress.
Amy Scott, the chief curator of the Autry Museum, describes Hagege’s work in the introduction of Desert Survey “silhouetted against expanses of cloud and sky, or situated in patterned landscapes composed of bright, flat color, his figures are at once the direct descendants of the region’s original residents yet also transcend historical definition.”
She continues, writing “by affiliating his work with the modernist take on the West, Hagege appeals also to a contemporary audience intrigued by regional identity within the West today, a place defined less by conflicts between opposing forces than encounters with something extraordinary.”
Artist and collector Billy Schenck, also known for his modern revisioning of the West in his work, agrees with Scott saying in the book’s foreward— “[Hagege’s] skies and clouds are genuinely bizarre and otherworldly places, but when put back together with the grounding forces of his figures in the middle and foreground, it all comes together again in a unique and truly believable setting…[he’s] achieved in his paintings an essence of something that lives and breathes in our Southwestern deserts.”
I leave Hagege’s studio with a handshake—the artist is leaving in a few hours to catch a flight to Las Vegas before beginning the long, remote drive to his Arizona desert home.
When I step outside, I notice that the once politely separated cumulus clouds have gathered and stacked themselves into a thick, overwhelming mass of cumulus congestus that are threatening rain. It is as if they have been blended, whisked, roused, and agitated. The morning rays of sun highlight their incredible texture.
These crepuscular-like rays extend generously beyond the clouds onto the green hills and sprawl of the Los Angeles basin—but rather than a Jacob’s Ladder to the heavens, or O’Keeffe’s “Ladder to the Moon” (1958) they seem to be ladders to a magnificent and ever changing kingdom of condensation-givers inviting the brave to begin their ascent.