Mediums of art have fashions, like musical instruments. When Winslow Homer painted watercolors in the 1890s, it was considered an amateur’s medium. Although encaustic paint—made from beeswax—has been used since ancient Egypt, more and more artists are discovering it today.
“You know what encaustic is most like? Glass,” explains Laura Moriarty, director of Exhibitions at the Gallery at R&F. “It’s something that can become molten—like lava is molten. And the moment it cools, it solidifies. And you can even capture, like you can with glass, that moment of flow. It just freezes. And the optical qualities of colored wax and colored glass are similar—you know, the way light passes through it. You can’t get that from any other paint.”
Jasper Johns is the most well-known encaustic artist. Covering the strident brightness of the American flag in a paint made from beeswax (in Flag 1954-55) is a political statement in itself. Our nation’s emblem becomes ambiguous, halfburied. “The thing that drew [Johns] to this material is that you could see every brushstroke, piled one on top of the other,” Moriarty explains.
This show includes 44 artists and 72 works, including pieces from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Canada. Only two of the painters live in New York City (which is rare for such a large exhibition). Many are from the West Coast.
Some paintings explore the erotic possibilities of the medium. Michael Zelehoski seals a beautiful woman in wax (Girl in Green) only to watch her stand, remote, behind the layers. Sheila Mahoney Keefe creates Biblical fables, like the drawings in illuminated manuscripts. Journey II has copious hints of salvation. Thomas Grady of Kingston offers a portrait of Francis Bacon (featured on the cover of this very magazine)—an artist I myself once saw in a bookshop in Paris. But the Bacon I stood near was a shuffling old man, not the bold and quizzical youth in this work.
“The trick of lighting encaustic is to shine the light in front of it, not onto it—to rake the lights,” explains Moriarty. The luminosity of encaustic is enhanced by indirect light.
Snyder came to the opening and was delighted. “I love it,” she said. “You don’t know when you’re looking at slides, and DVDs, and all kinds of images; you have no idea what it’s going to look like. On some of them, I took a big chance. And I’m really so pleasantly surprised by so many of the paintings.”
The endangered state of bumblebees adds a note of anxiety to the show. (Although Moriarty tells me encaustic painters need not worry; the supply from Canada is still ample.)
This is the first of the encaustic biennials to travel. The show will reach Ball State University’s Atrium Gallery in Muncie, Indiana on October 31. The Gallery at R&F publishes a full-color catalog of the paintings.
“Encaustic Works 2007” will be exhibited at the Gallery at R&F, 84 Ten Broeck Avenue, and at the Watermark/Cargo Gallery, 111-113 Abeel Street, in Kingston, through September 29. (845) 331-3112; www.rfpaints.com.