Two small panels among her nearly 30 works currently in the Dibble space at Phillips Gallery may represent a moment of freedom and spontaneity that Nancy Vorm needed to make for herself amidst the meticulously controlled efforts seen around them. Their titles, “Sojourn 1” and “Sojourn 2,” confirm the impression that they were fabricated together, using the same colors and tools, with the same free gestures, in contrast with their surroundings. They also provide a micro-history of the art of painting in the western world, where wax, the most versatile, long lasting, and in many ways the most expressive medium, inevitably gave way, first to egg tempera with its hard and brilliant surface, then to oils, with their long working times and ample room for reconsideration, and finally to polymer chemistry that mimics neither the heights nor depths reachable by what it replaced, but allows a reasonable simulacrum with far less fuss and effort.
Since the days when she focused on rust, paper, and monochromatic wax, Vorm has expanded her technical lexicon into a rich vocabulary that includes both opaque and transparent effects as well as a sculptural quality that only encaustic can provide without adulteration. It’s all present in “Untangle,” one of her more subtle, encyclopedic examples. Here half a dozen translucent, vertical stripes harmonize in soft colors over a series of calligraphic scribbles, and sometimes each other. On the left, on a primarily smooth, matte surface, the right edge of a broad, yellow stripe erupts in a granular texture that is echoed on the right by a fibrous, green overlay and, on the edge, an opaque yellow texture like horizontal brushstrokes. Its combination of profound depth and surface touch promises endless contemplation with no danger of exhaustion.
“Untangle” is a gem, but larger fields of luminous, colorful and thick wax draw the eye into seemingly vast spaces. ”Transient 1” and “Transient 2” are clearly landscapes that recall the squeegee works of Gerhart Richter, the world’s foremost living painter, but may also suggest the view of a meadow out the window of a speeding car. Vorm is just as likely to work with opaques, as she does in “Greener Pasture,” which suggests a overlap between the patchwork fields of Ireland, where the land is divided up so that every farmer has a share of both fertile and barren soil, and farms in the Benelux countries, where the eager market for colorful flowers leads to whole fields that look like they’re stained with aniline dyes.
The sculptural effects that were subtle in “Untangle” come very much to the fore in a number of what feel like experiments. In “Aquamarine,” the references to water of the two source words takes precedence over either the stone or the color they were combined to name. Here a laidback green and a ropey black suggest a relief image of a torrid stream flowing through a lifeless place, perhaps cleft rocks. In “Falling Slowly,” what might be rain on a variety of ornamental stone surfaces is frozen in place by a series of grooves in a gray skin that overlays it.
Perhaps the most contemporary feeling works here are those in which the wax is divided in ways that reinforce the image. In “Inner Circle,” which seems to argue that privilege elevates circumstances, the meeting of color areas and textures is direct and unmarked, but in “Pot” and “Boulder” these divisions are made by black grooves that lend a graphic dimension to the image. It’s possible to shade colors in encaustic so as to create the illusion of a third dimension, but Vorm abstains from techniques that would distract from the actual depth wax permits her to use instead, and thereby emphasizes the overall flatness of her panels. Or she does so in some cases, without restricting her freedom to produce local effects. In “Pot,” for example, a rogue bit of red presents as a shadow, thereby suggesting the flat rectangle is really a pot sitting on a table. For the sophisticated viewer, this kind of play can be enormously satisfying, coming as it does about as close as it can to the earliest childhood experiences of matching retinal data to actual facts in the real world.
Nancy Vorm’s abstraction is often geometrical, which might look like a concession to the challenges of encaustic. In reality, though, such precise lines test the skill of an artist who will need to melt the medium without losing control in order to produce color and texture effects. It’s more likely that Vorm found the technique most sympathetic to her desired expression. In “Rising Above,” amorphous spheres float in the air with an unmatched feeling of freedom, while the band beneath conveys meticulous control of an arrangement more characteristic of clay or blown glass. Any medium that permits expressing this range is bound to appeal to a painter of Vorm’s versatility and scope.
Nancy Vorm, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through July 14