Waxing Philosophic

I probably write less about encaustic on this blog than I do about any other medium—and if I do, I integrate in into a broader discoursebut today I have something to say.

An exhibition in book form

A Book and Exhibition
If you are in the Hudson Valley this weekend, please join me at the opening of Encaustic Works 2012 at the R&F Gallery in Kingston, New York. Encaustic Works is the name of a biennial exhibition sponsored by R&F Handmade Paints, one of the few manufacturers anywhere of encaustic paint. This year, for the first time, the exhibition is taking place not in a museum or gallery, venues where it has been held in the past, but in a book. I have a special affection for this exhibition in a book, because I was the juror, invited by the folks at R&F to select an exhibition from some 450 artist submissions. I selected 50 artists.

While the book is the exhibition, Laura Moriarty, director of the Gallery at R&F, has selected 14 artists from the book for an exhibition-within-an-exhibition, so to speak. If you are curious about what contemporary encaustic painting, sculpture and printmaking look like, come on over. You’ll get to talk with many of the artists, too.  By design, most of the artists are within driving distance, so the opening should be packed. The opening is on Saturday, October 6, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. 

Two views of Encaustic Works 2012

Above: Lisa Pressman and Renee Magnanti on back wall, Kevin Frank, foreground
Below: Lorrie Fredette on far wall;  Gregory Wright, Hilda Shen and Toby Sisson; these photos, Laura Moriarty

A Fork in the Road
But things are not all luminosity and waxy goodness. Encaustic painting has reached a fork in the road. Those of you who first learned about it through the flags and targets of Jasper Johns know it to be a substantial medium for abstraction, a medium which holds the track of a brushstroke or the path of a drip, a medium which functions like glue for collage (it’s what holds the newsprint to Johns’s canvas), so that paintings have muscle and heft.

Installation from Focus: Jasper Johns, Museum of Modern Art, December 2008-February 2009; left: Target with Four Faces; right: Flag, both encaustic and mixed media

If you are familiar with the work of Tony Scherman, you know encaustic to be expressively and romantically figurative, with great swipes of translucent paint applied alla prima to large canvases. If you are familiar with the sculpture of Petah Coyne, you know encaustic to have a baroque richness rife with metaphor and uncommon beauty. 

And if you saw the Lynda Benglis retrospective at the New Museum last year, you saw the work of an artist fluent in plastic mediums—latex, expanded foam, fabric, wax and metal—whose ideas about organic and sensuous accretion have remained more or less consistent among her various modes of expression.

Petah Coyne, Untitled # 1243 (The Secret Life of Words),  2007, cable, chicken wire, bolts, wax, silk flowers and other materials, at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2008 with Galerie Lelong
Detail below

Lynda Benglis installation view at the New Museum, February-June 2011, with  work in poured latex (foreground), and cloth, wax, urethane foam, wax, and cast bronze respectively

Lynda Benglis, Karen, 1972, wax on wood, 36 x 5 x 3 inches

Detail below

Those of you who are familiar with my work (see sidebar or click Exhibitions, a tab under the header) know encaustic to be a refulgent material that allows me to create a painting with light-infused layers—color fields and reductive geometric compositions—in which image and object are one.

There are many excellent painters and sculptors—well known and not so well known—who employ this contemporary medium, a medium with roots that extend to the Fayum portraits of Greco Roman Egypt. (If you saw Ancient Faces at the Met in 2000, you saw the first and only time a large collection of these mummy portraits, the earliest surviving paintings on a substrate other than cave walls, has been shown together.) I’ve shown and written about work in encaustic here, herehere and here. But there’s a problem: Wax is such a seductive material that it’s drawing hobbyists like bees to the hive. These are folks who describe their efforts as “waxing” instead of “painting,” as if Pledge rather than paint were the stuff at the end of a brush.  So when melty melts and drippy drips flood the art centers and juried shows, and retired engineers start calling themselves artists—actually “encaustic artists”—after a weekend workshop, the serious painters, myself included, start getting twitchy.

Of course hobbyists are active in every medium—think paint by number or Elvis on velvet—but oil has Rembrandt and Goya, Mitchell and Snyder; and acrylic, a long line of masters from Helen Frankenthaler to Agnes Martin to a host of contemporary practitioners. Unless you are familiar with the Fayums, however, you may think that encaustic begins and ends with a few well-known artists and everything else is kitsch. Indeed, I’m sparing in how much I write about encaustic on this blog because I don’t want to be associated with the craft and hobby component out there. (At the same time, I am active in the encaustic community to encourage professionalism among its practitioners and I work to raise the bar via the annual conference I run.)

Art, No Adjective
My rule of thumb is simple: Whether made with sheetrock or sequins, wood or wax, it’s the vision and voice of the artist that gives form to the medium, not the other way around. “Encaustic art,” on the other hand, is a hobby conceit, organized by those eager for visibility without the chops to get shown outside of a small circle of friends. “Encaustic art” as a term was used differently a couple of decades ago, but now if it’s adjectival, with very few exceptions it’s a subgenre. 

I’ve said enough. A few "encaustic artists" are already taking aim with tomatoes. But I’m doing my part to identify and acknowledge the contributions serious encaustic, and those who use it, offer to the discourse of contemporary art. As viewers and artists, as dealers, curators and critics, please don’t settle for less.

OK, I’ve got an opening to attend. See you there?

1 comment:

annell4 said...

Yes, I don't think it should be "medium" first, but rather the ideas behind the work, which determines the image, and determines art. But I certainly agree, wax is beautiful! And can be used in many ways. Looks like a show to be proud of!