Encaustic is among the most versatile mediums used by painters. Readers of the August issue of 15 Bytes will have seen Amy Adams use it to sculpt human heads covered with convincing flesh. Other artists, including some who will be discussed here, use wax to impart a quality of finish to works begun in other mediums. Some users treasure its ability to capture light and glow from within its depths, or the way it thrives in mixed media, or its ancient, worn surface appearance, or the contemporary vibe of its soft focus. Encaustic has been in use at least since Greek Egyptians used it to capture ironically lifelike portraits on coffins almost two thousand years ago, but it fell out of favor in time and only returned to popularity in the 1990s. Although the reasons for its revival include new technology and its Expressionistic quality, some of its greatest appeal has to do with the same qualities that may have led to its fall from grace long ago.
Jeff Cohen, who was added to the exhibit at Julie Nester Gallery at the last moment and was not included in the publicity for it, is one artist who uses wax as a substitute for varnish. He builds a painting up out of identically sized, separate blocks held together like so many decorative tiles. When they are painted, he uses a wide, flat brush to draw a coat of molten wax over each individual panel. By varying the direction and other qualities of the application and leaving the surface to cool with the brush strokes still visibly present he adds to the awareness that each facet of the complete image is separate and discreet. In “Three Marbles on Steel” the final effect may allegorize the way we take in most information in discontinuous bites — chapters of a book, episodes of a story, repeated partial viewings of a scene that may change with time of day or weather, from the disparate parts of which we build our complete mental picture.
Individual brush strokes and other applications of wax harden almost as soon as they are applied and record the precise history of the painting, making a record of progress that can get in the way of the artist’s intent. Most encaustic painters periodically apply heat to fuse multiple layers of hot wax into a continuous, smooth, velvety matte surface instead. This may be left alone or worked over and played with to produce contrasting textures. Like Cohen, Thea Schrack uses wax to cover work done in another medium: in her case, photography. Where Cohen’s effect is meant to be subtle, merging on subliminal, hers is meant as an integral part of her multiple-part ensembles. In “Red Spheres I, II, and III,” a thick layer of translucent wax and a finely textured surface diffuse light and soften the focus of already soft focused images. The effect is to distance the subject from the viewer: an idealized or possibly nostalgic impression heightened by the discoloration staining each panel’s borders.
Robin Denevan’s wetlands landscapes are a far cry from Schrack’s wax-covered photos, being built entirely from the panel surface up. What makes encaustic so versatile is that unlike oils or acrylics wax doesn’t polymerize, so its solidifying is reversible. Colors can be mixed with molten wax and applied as one, but they can also be painted onto hardened wax and then be melted into the body of the wax. In “Quiet Delta,” Denevan uses combined wax and pigment to draw and paint the atmospheric backgrounds of his landscape, then covers them with a layer of wax to soften them visually and create a feeling of distance. Then he carves deep into the new surface to render foreground foliage, filling the knife cuts with color that stains the surrounding wax. Limiting his palette creates a mood of early morning or dusk, the margins of day and night appropriate to the marginal places he depicts. The way wax records everything that happens to it contributes a feeling of organic life, with all the mess and happenstance so characteristic of wild places.
Amber George also exploits the memory of the wax, but uses it to suggest the passage of time resulting in patina and loss. “Embroidery #1” seemingly acknowledges the impact of microorganisms on living cells: the embroidery of life by life. On the left, wax puddles stand out from an otherwise smooth surface, while on the other tatted antimacassars were pressed into the surface to suggest transparent spheres. Other works depict plants in stencil-like interaction with ornamental patterns, recalling how batik combines such designs with wax and vegetable pigments to produce organic, rather than mechanical effects on dyed fabrics.
Among the antecedents Tracey Adams invokes in “Revolution 53” is Jasper Johns, whose targets, flags, and other subjects referred only to themselves: a flag is as flat as a painting of a flag and in that sense is indistinguishable from it. They were also essentially geometric forms consisting entirely of their surfaces, which surfaces Johns used encaustic to activate and expand on. More immediately, through luminous optics and the depth of the wax body Adams brings to life what would otherwise be a relatively static exercise in arranging decorative color forms. Her colors resist being confined to their forms, but spread in ways that resonate with associations. Vertical smearing invokes an animated movie slipping its sprockets. Spreading tints suggests optical glare or pigment bleeding into the surrounding white background. A red band on the left resembles the binding fabric of a book cover. The painting proposes a variety of possibilities to the eye, but leaves them unresolved.
It’s challenging to find a term that adequately encompasses what Kirsten Stolle does in her encaustic collages and collaborations. “Narratives” implies too much time passing for what are snapshots of an imaginary, alternate world. “Vignettes” accurately describes how the encaustic technique allows her collaged inclusions to occupy center stage while surrounded by accidental marks and artifacts alluding to spurious documentary history. “Mythology” may come closest, so long as her myths are allowed to be substantially scientific. And what are myths but the science of an earlier time? So it is that Stolle’s precipitous, net — or sponge — like promontories support trees drawn from anatomical engravings of lungs. They are also ringed by what could be vegetal or animal reproductive parts. What should not be overlooked, but is impossible to gauge from photographs, is how suspending these individual elements in the wax — parts borrowed from over half a millennium of scientific observation and abetted by the artist’s own drawings — simultaneously lends them an illusion of three-dimensional perspective while it unifies their collaged elements into a complex whole. While the purpose of all this serious play remains cloudy, the eye responds with curiosity and delight.
Julie Nester and her staff have hung the works of six artists that provide a broad survey of the capacity of encaustic as technique. They have also managed to include a spectrum of approaches to representing how the world looks to us today. It’s strange how the more accurately we are able to collect and collate light, the less sure and certain we are about what we see. Thus the history of painting, a story about ever more accurate ways of reproducing what we see, has come full circle, returning to a material that offers spontaneity and direct expression instead of meticulous rendering of detail. As T.S. Eliot said, we return to the place where we began, and know it for the first time.
New Encaustic Paintings, featuring work by Tracey Adams, Robin Denevan, Amber George, Thea Schrack, and Kirsten Stolle continues at Julie Nester Gallery through October 10.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.