Art in Re­view

Melt­ing Pot/Melt­ing Point at The Mu­seum of En­caus­tic Art

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Mu­seum of En­caus­tic Art, 632 Agua Fría St.; 505-989-3283; by ad­mis­sion through Oct. 21 En­caus­tic paint­ing has been around since the days of the Fayum mummy por­traits of im­pe­rial-era Rome, but the medium rarely gets its due. The mixed­me­dia for­mat ap­pears to play sec­ond fid­dle to its more es­teemed cousin, the oil paint­ing. It’s far less pop­u­lar than oils or acrylics among con­tem­po­rary artists. It’s not easy to work with and no­to­ri­ously hard to mas­ter. But en­caus­tic paint­ing, which com­bines heated beeswax with pig­ments, can lend depth and lu­mi­nos­ity to a work of art. Melt­ing Pot/Melt­ing Point, loosely tied to­gether by the theme of the di­ver­sity that en­riches our com­mon cul­ture, is a show­case for the adapt­abil­ity of en­caus­tics.

More than 40 artists par­tic­i­pated in the na­tional ju­ried ex­hi­bi­tion. Ju­ror and lo­cal artist Fran­cisco Ben­itez se­lected the works, and they run the gamut from nonob­jec­tive ab­strac­tion to re­al­ism. They con­sist pri­mar­ily of two-di­men­sional paint­ings and works on pa­per, and there are some ex­am­ples of en­caus­tic sculp­ture as well. En­caus­tics are of­ten used in con­junc­tion with other medi­ums like pho­tog­ra­phy and col­lage, and such works in mixed me­dia are also rep­re­sented in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

The theme of the show can be gleaned from in­di­vid­ual works — although, among the ab­strac­tions par­tic­u­larly, it is not nec­es­sar­ily ex­plicit. Ash­ton Phillips’ Mys­terium, for in­stance, makes no overt ref­er­ence to the idea of a ho­moge­nous, har­mo­nious so­ci­ety — the kind of in­te­grated com­mu­nity we think of when we hear the term “melt­ing pot” — but it is an effective com­po­si­tion, jux­ta­pos­ing lin­ear forms and planes of color with a mod­ernist aes­thetic. More lit­eral is Jorge Ber­nal’s en­caus­tic mono­type San Isidro Wall, Mex­ico-U.S. Bor­der Cross­ing, which de­picts a hud­dled group of fig­ures be­neath a yel­low sky. This por­trait of the in­flux of peo­ples across a fea­ture­less land­scape shows its sub­jects as dis­tant masses, but any dis­tin­guish­ing de­tails of in­di­vid­u­als are im­pos­si­ble to as­cer­tain. A kite fly­ing in the lower right corner strikes a sub­tle, hope­ful note, per­haps a re­minder that, for many for­eign­ers, Amer­ica is still a land of prom­ise. The show’s ti­tle also ref­er­ences the en­caus­tic medium it­self, and one can sur­mise that a par­al­lel ex­ists be­tween the ideals of a uni­fied so­ci­ety, work­ing to­ward the bet­ter­ment of all, and the ideals of the artist, work­ing to cre­ate a suc­cess­ful, co­he­sive com­po­si­tion.

Otty Mer­rill also tack­les the theme in a piece that is not di­rectly re­lated to im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence, as Ber­nal’s piece is, but one that seems tied to a com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence of im­mi­grant de­scen­dants: mil­i­tary ser­vice. Her com­po­si­tion My Coun­try ’Tis of Thee is a sculp­tural wall hang­ing roughly in the shape of a flag. It is com­posed of mul­ti­ple small parts as­sem­bled to­gether into a patch­work con­fig­u­ra­tion. My Coun­try ’Tis of Thee was made with found ob­jects and en­caus­tic wax em­bed­ded with old fam­ily pho­to­graphs. The lyrics of the name­sake song ap­pear through­out the com­po­si­tion. Sev­eral Christian crosses are in­cor­po­rated into the work as well as mil­i­tary dog tags, en­caus­tic tech­niques that re­sem­ble cam­ou­flage pat­terns, and photos of a soldier in uni­form, chil­dren, and an older woman, per­haps a fam­ily ma­tri­arch. In an­other flag piece, Shari Lyon con­joins cir­cles in a sym­met­ric ar­range­ment. These cir­cles take the place of the stars of Old Glory, whose red-and-white stripes are, in­stead, the col­ors of the rain­bow flag — synonymous with the LGBTQ move­ment. It is in­ter­est­ing to see how each of these artists takes a na­tional sym­bol and uses it to con­vey ideas of per­sonal his­tory, on one hand, and so­cial in­clu­sion on the other.

In terms of pro­fi­ciency with the medium and the ef­fec­tive­ness of the com­po­si­tions, Melt­ing Pot/Melt­ing Point is a mixed bag, as group shows fea­tur­ing dozens of artists of­ten are. Be­cause the show in­cludes only one work per artist, it lacks the con­text of a larger se­ries or body of work. Also, it seems a dif­fi­cult thing for en­caus­tic artists to get away from us­ing the medium in a kind of muddy way that ob­scures rather than en­hances a com­po­si­tion. Some of the works have an am­bigu­ous qual­ity. In some oth­ers, pig­mented wax pools and runs, not in a par­tic­u­larly com­pelling way, but in a way that merely sug­gests col­ored wax pool­ing and run­ning. But there are some stand­out pieces.

Karen Frey’s Mu­seum Study - Rome is a good ex­am­ple of us­ing en­caus­tic for­mats as a pri­mary paint­ing medium for a rep­re­sen­ta­tional com­po­si­tion. The paint­ing shows a view from one gallery lead­ing into an­other in a mu­seum set­ting. In the fore­ground gallery, there is a no­tice­able dif­fer­ence in the qual­ity of light, dis­tinct from the brighter back­ground gallery where two guards are in at­ten­dance. Frey takes full ad­van­tage of the lu­mi­nous prop­er­ties of en­caus­tics. We don’t need to see ei­ther room in its en­tirety to know the first room is win­dow­less but not the sec­ond.

Diane Kleiss’ Blended Bor­ders, Paul Kline’s Where the Tribes Meet, and Sally Con­don’s The Blue Line show that en­caus­tics can be used in dy­namic, bold ab­strac­tions with high con­trasts with­out plung­ing com­po­si­tional el­e­ments of line and form into swamps of milky opac­ity. But if there is a show­stop­per among this group­ing of art­works, it’s Richard Ni­cholas’ The Un­voiced — a photo/en­caus­tic image of what one pre­sumes is a young im­mi­grant woman, her face half in shadow. It was made us­ing archival inks and ground seashell pig­ments. An ab­stract, vari­col­ored pat­tern­ing runs over the com­po­si­tion as a whole. The paint­ing ap­pears to have a uni­form, feath­ered tex­ture, but when it is viewed at a slight an­gle, one sees the depth and di­men­sion­al­ity of the brush strokes. Ni­cholas also makes strik­ing use of vivid reds and oranges in the face of his sub­ject that con­trasts with back­ground col­ors of deep blues and vi­o­lets, col­ors that match those of her eyes. Also of note is Michelle Hay­den’s In­ter­wo­ven Threads in the Ta­pes­try of Our Na­tion, an en­caus­tic sculp­ture in which the man­i­fold wings of moth and but­ter­fly species — a metaphor for the het­ero­ge­neous makeup of the con­stituents of our repub­lic — are linked to­gether by a thread. Their bod­ies lay heaped in a pile, tied to­gether wing to wing. Be­cause they can­not fly when lumped to­gether, per­haps the sculp­ture is a cri­tique of ho­mo­gene­ity as a cul­tural ideal.

The Mu­seum of En­caus­tic Art is the first col­lect­ing in­sti­tu­tion ded­i­cated to the art form in the na­tion. Lo­cal artist Dou­glas Mehrens founded the En­caus­tic Art In­sti­tute in Cer­ril­los in 2005, in or­der to pro­mote and col­lect mem­bers’ works. In ad­di­tion to the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion, a per­ma­nent dis­play of works by EAI mem­bers is also on view. The mu­seum is among those rare niche es­tab­lish­ments that make our art-cen­tric city one of a kind. Started and main­tained by en­caus­tic artists, it also has the cre­ative dy­namism of a work­ing stu­dio. It’s worth your time to check it out, and there’s a good chance you’ll get a chance to see some artists on-site, ply­ing their craft. — Michael Abatemarco

Ash­ton Phillips: Mys­terium, 2018, en­caus­tic, oil, artist-painted and cut col­laged pa­per; top, Otty Mer­rill: My Coun­try ’Tis of Thee, 2018; en­caus­tic wax, photos, found ob­jects on wood; left, Jorge Ber­nal:San Isidro Wall, Mex­ico-U.S. Bor­der Cross­ing, 2018, en­caus­tic mono­type on wood

Karen Frey: Mu­seum Study - Rome, 2018, en­caus­tic on birch panel

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