Sunday, December 31, 2017

Repudiating "Encaustic Art" but Standing Up for Encaustic

By Nancy Natale

Recently I was invited to show at a local gallery near my home in Easthampton in Western Massachusetts. The gallery owner left up to me what type of exhibition I wanted, and I decided to invite Sharon Ligorner, another artist from my town, who also works in encaustic, to show with me. I thought our work complemented each other's because while we both worked in an abstract geometric mode, Sharon's work is much more curvilinear and expressive than mine and provided a balance to my straight lines and rectilinear forms. 

Sharon Ligorner, Diversity, 2016, gouache and encaustic, 24 x 24 inches
Nancy Natale, In the Rough, 2017, encaustic and mixed media, 16 x 16 inches

suggested the exhibition title of Pursuing Geometry as it placed the emphasis where I wanted it to be. Since I was aware that encaustic is a relatively unfamiliar medium to most people, we each submitted statements to the gallery that emphasized the way we structured our work and what we intended it to say while mentioning in parentheses that encaustic was pigmented beeswax.

I took charge of the listing in the Valley Arts Newsletter, a weekly online publication advertising visual and performing arts in the area. Although I was limited to only 500 characters including spaces, I managed to combine both our viewpoints:

Two artists paint abstractly and pursue geometry in their own way, one inspired by nature’s circular forms and patterns and the other by unique materials and straight lines. Their common medium of encaustic (pigmented beeswax) unites them with its inherent transparency, malleability, and dimensionality. Ligorner’s swirling patterns and transformative shapes contrast with Natale’s horizontal emphasis and muscular collages.

An Unwelcome Surprise

Despite my providing the gallery with the aforementioned statement along with our brief separate statements, to my horror the gallery promoted the show quite differently: 

Nancy Natale and Sharon Ligorner have at least one thing in common: wax. Their medium of predilection is encaustic painting. This artform is relatively unknown but certainly not new: The oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are the Romano-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits from the 1st Century BC. 

Encaustic art has seen a resurgence in popularity since the 1990s with people using electric irons, hotplates and heated styli on different surfaces (thank you Wikipedia!).

Whether you are familiar with encaustic art or not, we invite you to discover how Sharon and Nancy use that same medium to create their own unique artwork.

My Response

I immediately wrote an email to the gallery owner, Jean-Pierre Pasche, a very nice guy who had good intentions but didn't understand what was at stake. Here's what I said after being somewhat apologetic for having to write:

The description "encaustic art" is a very limiting and even ghettoizing term for art made using this medium. It reduces the work to just its medium and takes away from the unique use by individual artists. In other words, it detracts from the artists' intention in making the work. Would you describe oil paintings as "oil art" or works in acrylic as "acrylic art?" In some respects, the medium is the least important part of a painting. Do you see what I mean?

Encaustic is just one of the mediums in which we work, the way acrylic or oil or watercolor would be. The commonality in Sharon's and my work is geometry and the way we use it to make paintings.

This is a somewhat sensitive subject for me because along with the renewed popularity of encaustic has come a plague of hobbyists who just want to "play with wax." In some areas of the art world, this has caused works in encaustic to be regarded as inferior, too delicate to be sold, art that is not collectible in the same way as that in other mediums. You wouldn't believe the incredible messes made in the name of "encaustic art."

Sharon and I are professional artists who have been painting for years. The work we make could have been executed in any medium, but we chose encaustic because of its additional unique qualities.

Installation views at Elusie Gallery, Easthampton, Massachusetts

Above: Sharon Ligorner, D'Art Board; encaustic, gouache, and pencil, 24 x 24 inches; Good Fortune, encaustic, 12 x 12 inches; Sun Parade, encaustic, 12 x 18 inches; all 2017

Below: Nancy Natale, Red Blast, 24 x 24 inches; In the Rough, 16 x 16 inches; Googly Dots (top) and Blue Moons, both 12 x 12 inches; all 2017, encaustic and mixed media

A Resolution

The gallery owner understood and said he would not advertise the show that way any longer.

Perhaps he thought that I was being overly sensitive, but then he heard from two of his patrons that their impression of paintings made with encaustic had been based on the drippy, smeary, playing-with-wax paintings they had seen previously. The works in our show contradicted that impression. In a conversation I had at the opening reception with one of these patrons, an architectural color consultant and interior decorator, she expressed her astonishment at the amount of "control" that Sharon and I showed over the medium. She was stunned to think that her opinion of work in encaustic had been so far off track because of what she had seen from the melt-and-drip practitioners.

This experience has shown me I can't assume that someone writing promotional statements about a show will understand that the work is not about the medium. It must be explicitly stated that the medium is a means to an end and that the term "encaustic art" is not appropriate in any description because it diminishes the work. 

The term “encaustic art” does irreparable damage to those of us working professionally in the medium. I know that some artists (including ProWax members) refuse to even use the word "encaustic" because of its connotations, but we shouldn't shy away from the word just as other artists wouldn't shy away from "oil" or "acrylic." We choose encaustic because it has inherent qualities that allow us to make the work we want to see and to express the ideas we want to express. But to be clear: When we're describing our art, we don't need "encaustic" as the adjective.

. . . . . . . .

Nancy Natale is the executive editor of ProWax Journal

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  1. Yahoo, Nancy. Well said. Love the notion that “we don’t need “encaustic” as the adjective. It is all about the message and not the medium.

  2. Excellent Nancy...I in most recent months(or this last year at least) have described my own work as beeswax,resin and pigmet on panel..or wax and pigment monotype and/or print whichever the case may be for this very same reason.. and as my own practice has developed I am more interested in the intention behind the work then advertising the medium..thanks for sharing your take on this matter I am glad you were able to correct it in this instance. N.

  3. I agree. I think you handled it beautifully.