“Transparent layers of wax are scraped, smoothed and incised as I build texture and nuance of color. This process reflects time and memory within each piece.” So writes Jane Michalski, who began working with encaustic ten years ago, thirty years after she got her BFA. Her take seems to sum up the advantages of the medium, and in several ways, she is typical of the artists in this exhibit. Twelve of fifteen are women, and most are Euro-American with a median age fifty-five who took up encaustic later in life.
Michalski applies wax over altered photographic images of deserted beaches. Awesome natural forces are at play, but they seem to belong to an uninhabitable planet. Grim determination would be required to live there. The world that Jeffrey Hirst depicts is also currently uninhabited–though clearly mankind has left its mark before leaving. The flat, gray-blue spaces feel post-industrial yet inviting and even cheerful as one approaches the bleeding red edges. Most cheerful of all are the panels designed by Kathleen Waterloo. The evenly-spaced rows of colorful rectangles recall the tightly-packed, well-maintained and occasionally eccentric townhomes of an older Chicago neighborhood. Waterloo uses the translucency of wax to suggest the vibrant excitement of contemporary urban life rather than the lingering memories of the past.
Shelley Gilchrist applies that same translucency to thick stripes of solid primary colors on shaped panels. The upbeat results echo pop art of fifty years ago. The pieces are as lively, fun and aggressively superficial as a colorful beach towel. By contrast, Cat Crotchett borrows the wax-drip techniques and intense floral designs from Indonesian batik. One pattern on top of another on top of another suggests endless depth. Michele Thrane offers a similar lively complexity by combining mono-printed wax with graphite, ink and acrylic.
Many other pieces in this show have less to offer. Perhaps the artists have been primarily concerned with mastering technique. Some seem to have focused on delivering a timely joke or clever message. Other pieces feel more like a perfumed scent than a visual experience, or the artist has distributed marks or shapes evenly across the panel as if they were objects in a retailer’s catalog. The word “excavation” is included in one title, bringing to mind a famous painting in the Art Institute. But the rawness of de Kooning’s heroic struggle is not present here. A few pieces include images of the human figure, but absent any joy, anger, comedy or tragedy, they seem awkward and muddled, perhaps intentionally so.
Overall, this wide assortment of attitudes and techniques is worth seeing. Decades of life experience, as well as volumes of wax, have seeped into these surfaces, but only a few of these artists have connected to something greater than herself. (Chris Miller)
“Encaustic 2017” shows through September 9 at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 West 35th Street.