Painting has been declared dead more times than the Republican Party—and like the GOP, it keeps unaccountably reviving. Recently, photographers have begun enhancing their work with paintbrushes. "Photoencaustics" at the Galerie BMG in Woodstock presents five artists who combine photographic prints with encaustic paint.
Bernard Gerson, director of the gallery, chose pieces illustrating the varieties of encaustic photography. In "The Ceremony," Kara Taylor superimposed four photos of a woman in a white dress on a grove of trees. Actually, only the bottom of each figure is visible—the upper torsos evaporate, like mist. The scene resembles four bridesmaids at a ghost wedding. In two of the bodies, a distant tree trunk may be seen through the translucent dress, just where the spine of the woman would be. After we die, perhaps, we lose our bones, and envy the solidity of trees.
And what is the titular "ceremony"? A funeral? A gathering of spirits? An act of revenge? Many of the pieces in "Photoencaustics" have narrative elements, but the "stories" they tell are ambiguous, evasive.
Rita Bernstein's pieces could easily be mistaken for paintings. No remnant of the photographic image is visible, yet one senses the solidity of structure beneath the paint. The grieving boy with the bowed back in The Accident began as a real person in a room, posing before a pinhole camera. Bernstein says, of working with models: "If you're an artist and you're responding to another person, you're as attentive as the best lover."
Leah Macdonald employs a springlike palette, sometimes to ironic effect. In Green Bouquet, a frolicsome spray of flowers is held by a tense, feminine hand. The artist chose carefully which details not to paint. We notice, with a slight shock, that the hand is photographic—almost like seeing a mannequin in a department store with actual, living feet. Our eye isn't accustomed to a half painting/half photo. Macdonald also collages antique letters, diary entries, and lace onto her works.
Macdonald explained her method: "As an artist, you look at other artists, and you say, 'This is what I like about him, and this is what I like about her.' It's like saying, 'Okay, I want her hair, and her nose, and her eyes; I want her body.' And then you try to integrate that into your process."
The two basic impulses of photographic painting are to decorate and desecrate. Hope Kahn combines both in her two photos, in a gesture of self-graffiti. Both began as feminine faces. For one, Kahn supplies a rude crown and bright red lipstick; in the second she conjures a mysterious spiraling headdress. Both are suggestive of popular portraits of Catholic saints, slightly skewed.
The five artists in this show, all women, use varying photographic strategies. Macdonald, Bernstein and Kahn shoot with film; Taylor employs a digital camera. Christa Kreeger Bowden places botanical specimens on a flatbed scanner, then prints the images on sheets of wood. (Bowden's original epiphany came while weeding her vegetable garden.) All five photographers then add encaustic paint, a medium first used in Greece in the fifth century BCE. Encaustic includes hot beeswax, resin, and pigment, and is known for its luminosity. At a time when photography is usually prized as a method of documentation, these five artists catalog an inner history. "For me, the painting adds a longevity to the work," Macdonald remarks.
"Photoencaustics" will appear at the Galerie BMG in Woodstock until February 11.