Encaustic — powdered pigment suspended in a matrix of heated wax and damar varnish— may be an ancient medium dating back to Egyptian times (when it was used for coffin-lid portraits of the dead that still look fresh), but its irresistibly tactile surfaces and seductive spatial depths are eternally beguiling to artist and viewer alike. With that tug between the optical and the tactile, it's especially apt for collage works suggesting time and memory, like the ghostly flag collages of the 1950s that Jasper Johns made from embalmed newspaper clippings. Eighty-three artists were selected for Working in Wax by juror and artist Eileen P. Goldenberg. Their dynamic paintings and sculptures suggest that encaustic will endure and thrive — perhaps even after American culture, too long bedeviled by complacent denial, is long gone.
Encaustic can be used unpigmented as a coating for collage elements. Sharon Kyle Kuhn, Sandra Beard, Carol Ware, Margaret Berry, Francesca Pera, K. Rhynus Clark, Cathy Valentine, Mary Mortimer, Judith Williams, and Rodney Thompson coat objects in order to add structural strength or to implant them physically and visually into their compositions. Berry's coated slices of kiwi cucumber, carrot, and eggplant would be the paradigm of waxen enclosure. Encaustic can also be mixed with pigment and used either in thin layers or as a thick paste, just as oil paint can be mixed to varying viscosities. Lisa Meyer-Kairos and Margaret Chavigny use thin paint contrasted with a base of clear wax into which the viewer peers that lends pictorial depth. Mary Marks, Margo Mullin, Cindy Roe, Julie Nelson, Jan Davidson, and Francesca Pera use thick encaustic for its pronounced textural qualities: it can imitate bark or asphalt, or be applied in geometric arrays of blobs.
From high relief it's but a step into sculpture. Encaustic can be scraped, carved, and cast. Carol Glashoff juxtaposes wax and cast-glass models of camisoles and miniskirts, while Margaret Niven creates a pyramid of soft, waxen bones and a sea anemone composed of cast-wax human fingers — a digital sphere. Wendy Akin and Judy Stabile fashion an entire family room from wax and other materials, from furniture down to tabletop contents (teapot, glasses, keys, sugarcube dish). Jessica Martin creates imaginary objects: in one piece, two stacks of pancakelike disks rise like slime molds to meet each other and merge; in another, a waxen cloud/brain/jellyfish perched on four spindly legs emits progeny that hang from web lines or tentacles.
Goldenberg will discuss encaustic at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, June 10 (RSVP required). Working in Wax runs through June 27 at Bedford Gallery (1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek). BedfordGallery.org or 925-295-1417.
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