Artists have rediscovered the once-forgotten ancient technique of encaustics. And the greater Bridgeport area happens to be home of a number of accomplished practitioners. City Lights has found them and is offering their work on view next week.
Artscope invited me to write about the show as it was still being put together. Here’s what I wrote:
The use of bee’s wax as an artist’s medium was nearly lost to another ancient, but less labor-intensive process, egg tempera painting. Encaustics work, however, was revived in the 20th century, likely through the influence of Diego Rivera and Jasper Johns.
It possibly helps that the advent of portable heating devices has made the artists’ job easier, although working in bee’s wax remains a highly specialized skill that requires an light touch with crude implements such as heat guns and torches.
A wide range of possibilities is opened to an artist adventurous enough to tackle this formidable technique. That range will be explored in “Wax is a Verb” at City Lights Gallery, a non-profit space in downtown Bridgeport. Connecticut. The show features Binnie Birstein, Leslie Giuliani, Michelle Beaulieu, Nash Hyon, Patrick Kennedy, Laura Moriarty, and Peggy Weiss.
Some of the artists have worked extensively in encaustic: Birstein enhances her work with oil stick, ink and graphite; Giuliani creates vibrant, multi-hued encaustic collages on wood; and Moriarty brings the technique to sculpture through installations and pedestal-based wedges verge on three-dimensional abstracts. Another featured artist is known more for her photography. Beaulieu was Birstein’s student in the last year, and brings the excitement of an encaustic ingenue still finding herself and offering the promise of a fresh perspective.
“I feel it is the labor intensive process and the qualities of the medium that in part inspire artists to create in unexpected ways,” said Suzanne Kachmar, the gallery’s program director and herself a practitioner in encaustic techniques. “In this exhibit there will be works ranging from representational, to abstract, to assemblage and sculptural paintings. The medium will be painted, scraped, carved, poured and used as an adhesive.”
The title of the show is a playful reference to an older meaning of the word “wax,” which meant “to grow” or “develop.”
“Artists use the wax to create, so wax is a verb,” Kachmar explains. “For artists who have been working for years in this and other media, encaustic may be just another option for visual expression, but for many, encaustic is still a mystery. How does one work with it? How is the paint made? The viewer may think that wax is for soap, candles or sculpture. In fact wax is also used in oil paint.”
Birstein’s pieces play with spacial ambiguity, injecting them with energy and movement.
“In most of the works, a central spiral is set against a grid, and within that format, reality is distorted, space is imagined or concealed, and objects emerge, only to get caught up in the tumultuous, whirling action of that spiral which sometimes even takes over the grid,” said Birstein, who will also conduct encaustic workshops at the gallery during the run of the show. “The contest between figure and ground results in amorphous shapes layered with vibrant, exuberant colors that possess strangely beautiful power and energy.”
Giuliani’s collages weave various colors and icons in ways that suggest painted wooden crazy quilts.
“I like to add carved panels and cut-out shapes to my free-formed constructions,” Giuliani said. “I scavenge old pieces of wood because of their unusual colors and shapes.”
Beaulieu began studying encaustics with the intention of applying wax pigments to her photography, something she says she won’t attempt until she’s more acclimated to the skill. But the effort has so far been worthwhile.
“I’m enjoying the dichotomy of the wax compared to my photography,” said Beaulieu. “It’s a wonderful medium that’s opened me up artistically and emotionally.”