Montclair Art Museum

Montclair, NJ



Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America during the Twentieth Century

by Gail Stavitsky, Ph.D., Chief Curator


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The Encaustic Art Revival of the 1980s and 1990s / Themes and Concerns: Abstraction

A number of artists have embraced the encaustic medium to create abstract works that defy categorization although they may allude to a variety of concerns outside the aesthetic realm. Barbara Ellman creates seemingly non-objective encaustic paintings that are in fact based on parcheesi, an ancient Indian game. With repeating patterns, a grid composition, geometric forms, and four corners, they suggest cosmic maps and a quest for home which is the object of the game. Reminiscent of traditional American quilts, Pennsylvania Dutch barn charms, and Tantric designs, Ellman's paintings such as Game Board #48 evoke the challenge of using the painterly encaustic medium within a carefully conscripted linear format. Mounting watercolor paper on a plywood support, Ellman draws the design and covers it with a layer of beeswax over which she applies R & F encaustics. Fusing the layers with a heat gun, she etches into the surface with a dental tool to expose the colored pencil drawing.

After taking a workshop at R & F Handmade Paints in 1996, Ellman began to use encaustic exclusively, having been initially introduced to working with wax in sculpture by Nancy Graves in 1986. She enjoys the smell, physicality, richness of color, mutability from solid to liquid, versatility, and permanence of encaustic which can be easily reworked, opaque or transparent, flat or buffed to a high gloss. The tension between this highly fluid, palpable medium and the demanding geometries of Ellman's compositions animates her game boards which are metaphors of human endeavors.[226]

Cheryl Goldsleger creates non-objective encaustic paintings which function as metaphors for a mental journey through deserted labyrinthian spaces. Since 1984 Goldsleger has been working in encaustic which she makes herself. Attracted to Fayum mummy portraits, Goldsleger also researched information about materials, techniques, and art conservation. Encaustic seemed to offer the surface she needed to continue a five year period of intensive drawing of architectural subjects and facilitate a move back into painting. In Reversal, done during the summer of 1997, Goldsleger has juxtaposed two panels to create a dialogue in which shifts of color and emphasis create a sense of progression and transition within and between complex, diagrammatic maze-like spaces. Incising lines into a base layer of hot wax with a translucent mixture of oil and wax scraped into them, she focuses attention on the rich subtlety and nuance of the linen surface, as well as the basic nature of her black and white, building-block forms. The tension between the sensuous and cerebral, two and three-dimensional, abstract and representational, rational and irrational enlivens Goldsleger's visionary work.[227]

Like Goldsleger, Martin Kline for many years made only works on paper and then switched to working with encaustic as a medium with related properties of honesty and directness. Drying instantly, encaustic marks are, for Kline, deliberate, consequential, and accepted as they show through transparent layers of paint. Appreciative of Johns's imagery and content in such works as Figure 5, Kline was also aware of his use of encaustic to create objects which bear the record of their own making. Discovering R & F encaustics, he began to experiment in 1996, making small abstract paintings with contrasting sides of oil and encaustic reminiscent of Johns's mixed media approach. Painting was among the first multi-layered, encaustic paintings he created and became the declarative statement of his concerns with a simultaneous and contrasting reading of his work. What is concealed is also revealed; that which is simple and minimal is also complex, detailed, and intricate. The sculptural relief quality of the encaustic paint nevertheless reveals the panel support and reinforces a two-dimensional perception. Having stripped down and removed all traces of representation from his all over, architectonic grid format, Kline built up rich, multiple layers of encaustic which accentuated the paint's dual organic properties: "liquid yet solid, fluid yet frozen, accumulation suggestive of growth."[228]

Joanne Mattera also employs a grid-based field for her sensuous abstract encaustic paintings. Having worked in this medium since 1990, Mattera came to encaustic after using conventional oil and acrylic paint for years. The idea of encaustic had remained with her since a junior-year painting materials class at Massachusetts College of Art. Feeling that she finally possessed the maturity to handle this challenging medium, Mattera further developed the minimalist device of the grid, her primary subject since 1978. For the Cera series, titled after the Italian word for wax, Mattera shifted, multiplied and deconstructed the grid to create a dispersed field pattern of organic and calligraphic markings. She works with a classic encaustic formula of beeswax colored with oil-based dispersion pigments to build up as many as twenty layers of translucent paint. The surface is further enriched through incising lines into which pigment is rubbed, making marks with oil paint, oil stick, or oil pastel or scraping to reveal previous strata. Working on a flat surface, she likens the encaustic process to the art of Zen, a fleeting moment of clarity and concentration when the wax passes from a molten to a hardened state. Responding to the luminosity and lushness of the encaustic surface as a contradiction to the grid format, Mattera feels that the medium "creates a sensuous minimalism in which...the opposites amplify one another...austere and sumptuous, controlled and free."[229]

Since 1988, Heather Hutchinson has worked with encaustic to create abstract paintings that are meditations in light, color, and depth, as well as distilled essences of physical, spiritual, and emotional experiences. This dialogue of the tangible and abstract is reflected in the post-minimalist interplay of reductive geometric forms and sensuous wax surfaces as in Wash My Eyelids in the Rain. At once opaque and translucent, delicate blue wax is applied in a loose, painterly grid-like manner to two plexiglass panels suspended in box frames. The light-transmitting ability of these substrates is simultaneously amplified and modified by their mutable, shimmering encaustic surfaces, as are their rectangular shapes. Through its monumental verticality and projection from the wall, this diptych obliquely suggests both a totemic persona and a luminous, panoramic section of the sky. The allusive aspects are further heightened by the choice of title, a line from a Leonard Cohen song, So Long, Marianne.

Rooted in the history of art, Hutchison's work is often compared to the sublime calm of Rothko's paintings. The wax sculptures of Medardo Rosso and Domenico Bianchi have inspired her, as has the translucent sculpture of Christopher Wilmarth. Furthermore, Hutchison briefly assisted Joseph Amar who, employing wax and lead in his work, reinforced her interest in encaustic. The 19th-century seascapes of Courbet and Corot have also been cited by the artist as an inspiration for some of her Romantically-inclined abstractions.[230]

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/28/11

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