"Luminosity and Emotional Juiciness"

Above, from left: Uttar 294, 36 x 36 inches; two paintings from Vicolo, each 12 x 12 inches; and an installation of Silk Road paintings, each 12 x 12 inches
Below, from left: Uttar 295, 36 x 36 inches; Uttar 298 and Uttar 296, each 24 x 24 inches; all paintings encaustic on panel, 2006

While the actual painting for an exhibition is finished by the time the exhibition is installed (though sometimes just barely), there is much to be done after the fact. On Saturday, a few hours before I gave a talk about my work to a nice turnout of artists and collectors, I shot the installation. Yesterday I edited and Photoshopped the pictures, and today Cate McQuaid's review, "A Clever Pairing," appeared in The Boston Globe. I've excerpted her review below:

"Wax and rubber have certain things in common--a tactile similarity, a translucence--that make the two solo shows by Joanne Mattera and Niho Kozuru at Arden Gallery a clever pairing.

"Mattera's encaustic paintings involve pouring layers of pigmented wax one over the next, building up and scraping away to create pieces of brilliant color that catch the light in surprising ways. She lays her emotive tones over grids, bringing order to the expressiveness. Her understated, lovely "Silk Road" series features several foot-square panels, each monochrome, and each bearing the texture and luminosity of silk.

"In her "Uttar" series, she borrows tones from Indian miniature paintings. "Uttar 295" sports a checkerboard of blues with an occasional watery rose. The squares drip, leaning into one another like keening women at a funeral.

" Mattera's stacked lipstick reds appear in columns in "Uttar 295 (Ciel Rouge)." It hangs beside Kozuru's "The Rising Column," made of cast red rubber; the two make a gorgeous installation. "The Rising Column"... shares not only the soft texture of Mattera's work but the wonderful conflation of crisp, traditional form with luminosity and emotional juiciness."








Uttar 294 (Ciel Rouge), 48 x 67 inches; foreground: Niho Kozuru, Rising Column, cast rubber

Uttar 295, encaustic on panel, 36 x 36 inches, 2006


Acrylic as a Second Language

Pressed with the need to create a painting for the big front window of Arden Gallery for my September

Installation: Quadrate 1 in the window of Arden Gallery on Newbury Street, Boston

solo, I pulled out some old acrylic paints and brushes, purchased two gallons and several large tubs of gel, set up the easel, and immersed myself in a medium I hadn’t touched in over a decade.

Normally I paint in encaustic, but I didn’t want to put a wax painting in the gallery's window because I wasn’t sure what the trajectory of the sun would be in late summer and thus how hot the window area would get. (Wax + intense heat = puddle.)

I've been involved with encaustic for so long that the wide variety of gels are a new (to me) development in acrylic painting. I had the idea that by mixing acrylic paint with polymer medium--the way I mix encaustic paint with wax medium--and by applying clear layers of the polymer medium to create physical and optical depth, I might achieve something of the substance and luminosity of encaustic.

Well, I did. And I didn't.

Quadrate 1, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches, 2006

Once I got over trying to make an "encaustic painting" in plastic and gave into the idea that I was making an acrylic painting, I got into the process. There are some similarities between what I'm doing in the two mediums. The acrylic paint dries almost as fast as the wax paint cools, and by using combinations of no gel, some gel or a lot of gel--mostly semigloss--with various paints that are by nature opaque or semi-transparent, I can create some of the same play of opaque, translucent and transparent hues that I do with wax, with something of the same built-up texture. And, of course, I'm still making the same kinds of paintings: repetitive geometric compositions whose focus is color.

But there are differences. Unlike molten wax, which literally flows off the brush, acrylic paint mixed with gel is slippery; it needs to be pushed, pulled or dragged across the canvas. Since I normally work on panel, I’d forgotten about the "boing" of the canvas; I feel as if I’m painting on a trampoline. While I can wipe or scrape the acrylic while it’s in a plastic state, working it after it has begun to polymerize is messy and gooey. The paint was not meant to be worked that way. Yes, it’s always interesting to push a medium into new places, but scraping a semi-polymerized surface is literally ripping the skin off the painting. It doesn’t yield the way wax does. In fact the yielding surface is one of the reasons I turned to encaustic.

I’m not about to give up encaustic any time soon. Wax is an extension of my hand. But working in a second medium is like speaking a second language. Your ability to get around in the world, and certainly to communicate, increases immensely. Particularly with regard to larger-scale painting, acrylic lets me "speak" upright at the easel with fluency and to transport the work with relative ease. So we’ll see where this goes.

I certainly have enough gel left.


Post-partum Abstraction

I have just delivered a show, and I'm recovering from post-partum abstraction.

It happens just after the work leaves my studio. It’s the huge emotional, psychic and physical depletion that follows the long preparation of a show. After working 12-hour days for months--a steady, though not necessarily painful labor--I am in an empty studio completely drained. I’m not moving fast enough, but at the same time, I can barely catch up to myself.

Artists of all sexes know what I’m talking about. It takes a huge amount of energy to go into the studio to paint every day. A delivery date looms. And then, in the exhausting weeks just before the show when most of the work is finished, you want to do just one more painting because there’s a surge of energy and inspiration yet to emerge. I don’t have children, but I’d guess it’s like pushing out 15 babies and then, wait, there’s one more—no, I think it’s two—ready to slide.

While the eighth child is crowning, there are a dozen little (and not so little) administrative things that must be done. I’m fortunate to work with galleries that install beautifully and take care of all the details. Still, the work needs to be shot and Photoshopped before it leaves the studio. There are postcards to send out, personal notes to write, and an inventory list to make. Did you get my "Joanne’s Art News?" I sent that out late last week.

Today I clean the studio and work out the palettes for the next couple of paintings. I said that yesterday. I’ll probably say it tomorrow.

Next week I’ll be back to my regular self and the maternal metaphors will be shelved until the next delivery—which will be in March.


Unexpected Commonalities

On one of my periodic image surfs of the web, I came across this picture of Buddhist monks in Bhutan (or maybe it was Tibet). It's a lovely picture, but what shocked me was the palette. On the easel in my studio was the painting you see below. Not only does it have an almost exact palette, the color relationships are in almost the same proportion, too. If you scroll the window so that you see the bottom of the photograph and the top of my painting, you'll see just how proportionate those relationships are. Perhaps I was a Buddhist monk in a previous life?

Quadrate 2, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 48", 2006

I made this painting in acrylic. That's a change for me. In a subsequent post, I'll talk about working in a different medium.


Heat of the Moment

Uttar 298, encaustic on panel, 24x24 inches, 2006

For years I’ve described my painting as lush minimalism. Occasionally I think about coming up with another description, just to keep the signifier as current as the work, but nothing resonates as well as those two little words. The thesaurus is no help. "Succulent reduction" sounds like a sauce de cuisine; "drunk negligibility," like grounds for arrest. And "voluptuous insignificance" just reeks of a bad Internet translation. Geometric abstraction is a good umbrella term for what I do, but it lacks the specificity to describe my particular version of it, which is a sensuous surface married to the austerity of the grid. Fortunately, my visual explorations have yielded more satisfying results than the thesaurus. Tilling a formalist field, I’ve produced three series over the past six years. Uttar, inspired by the brilliant palette of Indian miniatures and the small paintings of Renaissance Siena, continues apace motivated by some force within me that keeps finding new reasons to combine blocks and stacks of color. There are almost 300 paintings in this series—the most recent of them in this exhibition. You might think, "How much can you do with those simple geometric elements?" It’s no longer a matter of the broad gesture—if it ever was at all—but of the variations, painting to painting, within the series. Working serially lets me explore the subtleties of an idea. Inevitably there are changes along the way. I’m not totally in control; things happen in the heat of the moment.

I like how Uttar, while retaining its own identity, has shown me the way to two other series: Vicolo and Silk Road. Italian for "narrow passage," Vicolo exists for

Vicolo 25, encaustic on panel, 18 x 18 inches, 2006

its skived and riven layers. Much of each painting is hidden in layers, and only the act of dragging a metal tool across its surface exposes some of what is beneath. Sometimes I float new color into the channels I have created, and I may then scrape those back. I’ve often referred to my work as a controlled version of the unexpected, and nowhere is that more true than here, for despite my concentration and planning, the painting reveals itself as I work.

Silk Road, my newest body of work, is the most reductive series I’ve ever done. Each painting is a luminous monochrome achieved by applying layers of translucent paint at right angles. Actually it’s not quite the monochrome it appears. Each painting has about 20 layers and five or six different hues. Working in encaustic, pigmented wax, I apply the paint when it is molten. I could mix colors on a hot palette—the Teflon griddle that holds my paints—and sometimes I do; but mostly the color mixing takes place in your eye as the layers of color, sometimes as disparate as yellow and purple, coalesce into one hue. While you’re up close, you’ll see that the subtlest of grids is formed by the trail of brushmarks and intentionally grainy elements within the paint. The suggestion of iridescence and fabric came after the first few paintings were done. The series just named itself. What else to call it but Silk Road? I’ve limned each painting to charge the intensity of its color field and intensify the square shape of each painting. The paintings are typically installed in a grid.

Silk Road 82, encaustic on panel, 18 x 18 inches, 2006

It would be disingenuous to say that a show titled "Heat of the Moment" is just about the fleeting moments of creative ecstasy in the studio. It’s about the way I work. I paint primarily in encaustic, and encaustic requires elevated temperatures—hotplates to melt the wax, a heatgun to fuse the layers of paint once they are laid down. Painting in encaustic permits but a tiny window of opportunity to get a paint-laden brush from the heat source to the surface of the painting before the wax cools and the brush gets stuck. I didn’t choose encaustic because I wanted to make an already difficult calling even more difficult by adopting a process-intensive medium with unyielding parameters. I was drawn by the materiality of the paint, the lushness of it. And by the luminosity. Like a moth to a flame.