Encaustic, the ancient practice of mixing pigment with heated wax, may be the most common art form you’ve never seen. Incorporated into the works of star names like Jasper Johns, Diego Rivera, Brice Marden and Michelle Stuart, the technique has long been a basic creative tool for producing a depth and translucent quality to visual art, but for years the technique remained the wallflower of artistic dialogue, not much discussed or studied. But that began to change during the last century, with a momentum that’s created a revival of interest in a technique with roots in the Greco-Egyptian world of antiquity.
“For many, the work of Jasper Johns is their first introduction to contemporary encaustic,” says Reni Gower, the curator of this season’s Heated Exchange at Tryon’s Upstairs Artspace, referring to Johns’ iconic Flag and Target, from the 1950s. Those seminal works used collaged layers of newsprint on canvas, which absorbed, and fused with, a heated wax overcoat. “Over the last 25 years, there’s been a renewed interest among artists, curators and dealers in this versatile and malleable material,” adds Reni, of Virginia Commonwealth University and one the form’s leading practitioners and experts.
Reni’s own work joins that of ten other contemporary artists in Heated Exchange, with over 50 works exhibited — including six larger, multi-part installations — by artists who have helped revive encaustic for modern audiences. All of them have exhibited internationally, including Spartanburg’s Jane Allen Nodine, who teaches at USC Upstate and is Director of USC’s Curtis Harley Gallery. It was at a workshop in 2006 led by Reni Gower that Jane, who had been working in acrylics, first saw the opportunity encaustic offered her. “I had become dissatisfied with the synthetic and plastic barrier quality of acrylic media,” Jane says. “I came to wax for the aesthetic and malleability properties.”
It was precisely those properties, one presumes, that attracted the unknown artists who created the famed Fayum funerary portraits in late Roman-era Egypt, which came to light during archeological excavations in the early 19th-century. Quarter-length portraits of the deceased placed over the upper chest and head of their mummy, they were startling in their near-perfect preservation of color and detail, kept fresh over the centuries not only by the hot and dry climate of the desert, but by the protective wax with which the pigments were mixed. These kinds of “hot wax” paintings were among the most popular art forms of the late Classical period, but gradually fell out of favor as the more portable and easily-handled oil-based paints and watercolors became the standard media.
Working in encaustic, in fact, does present certain challenges for the contemporary artist coming to the form for the first time. “Silly as this sounds, you have to learn how to pick up hot things — the little pots of melted wax, the razor blades, a butane torch or a heat gun — all hot and used frequently,” says Mary Farmer, the Asheville artist who works almost exclusively in the form, and who will be leading an introductory workshop at the Upstairs during the run of Heated Exchange. “You have to work with the medium to get it. Wax is just different in its properties. It’s not an intuitive way to paint. Learning how to get the result you want takes practice, because you handle the paint quite differently from oils or acrylics or watercolors.” But the rewards are many for those who stick with it. Colors can be manipulated more easily and more creatively, and can even be reworked more easily by simply re-melting the wax. And for many artists using the technique, the tactile and sensual pleasures offered by encaustic are immensely satisfying. “The aromatic scent of honeyed beeswax is an intoxicating perfume,” Reni says. “For me, the exhibition resonates with sensual materiality.”
The variety of surfaces which can be used in encaustic work is another draw. Heated Exchange includes works on canvas, wood, fiberglass, and textiles. One of the show’s installations is made entirely of sculptured and painted wax forms, reminiscent of blackboard erasers, while other work uses clipboards as the applied surface, or umbrella-shaped fiber forms suspended from the ceiling. The variety of surface media permits an array of personalized techniques for which everything from heat lamps to irons to lasers can be wielded to manipulate the pliant wax. “I like to work hot,” says Jane Allen Nodine. “I tend to heat the wax to a liquid state during my working process, which is one reason I like working with wax — the various temperatures that can be used to make it pliant.”
Along with the workshops accompanying Heated Exchange, educational programs for children will bring area beekeepers to the Upstairs to talk about bees, honey and wax, a quotidian substance art lovers may no longer take for granted after seeing the show. “This is a wonderful opportunity to see some of the most spectacular work done in this medium today,” says Karen Jones, the president of the Upstairs board of directors.