By Joanne Mattera
If you look at the creative efforts of all accomplished artists there’s a common thread: The work of each artist is immediately recognizable as having been made by that artist. It’s the visual expression of an idea. An artist’s oeuvre, or body of work, is the physical manifestation of a succession of ideas, developed over time, which carry an artist’s aesthetic DNA.
A number of elements make an artist’s oeuvre distinctive. It could be subject matter or palette, surface or mark, concept or process—or, more likely, a unique combination. Medium is often the least unifying element. Look at Picasso, who painted, sculpted, drew, made prints and worked with clay: There’s subject matter, line quality and particular way of expressing figure and volume that is his alone, but he used plenty of materials and techniques. Look at Petah Coyne, whose monumental forms, most recently assembled into installations, incorporate all kinds of different materials, including wax; it’s the structural way she amasses, and her particular sensibility in the massing of those structured forms that makes a Coyne a Coyne.
In our own community, consider the work of Howard Hersh, who is fluent in both encaustic and acrylic, creating encaustic paintings as well as wall-mounted reliefs in acrylic. Howard has described his work as “paintings about structure and structures about painting.” Consider the work of Karen Freedman, whose luminous, kaleidoscopic geometries allow her to exploit, though color, virtually endless visual variation within an established matrix. Recently she has begun to work them larger in acrylic. Or Ruth Hiller, who started her Soft Geometry series with encaustic on shaped plywood panel but has been exploring the possibilities of acrylic on panel or plexi. Their ideas transcend medium.
Medium and technique are simply the means to an end. If there’s no idea to express, all you have are wax and some ways to apply it. This is the failing of untrained instructors who don’t know how to teach beyond the mechanics of encaustic. And it’s the shortcoming of beginning artists working in wax who focus on the tangible–such as transfers, texture, and an obsession with surface–with nothing holding it up, so to speak. You often hear their approach expressed this way: “I keep layering and melting, building up and scraping back until something happens.” Nature and time do that to all kinds of surfaces, too. But what’s your work about? The materials may be luscious, but without the imprint of your own thinking, there’s no there there.
A good teacher understands how to get a student thinking about the there, how to encourage the development of the there. A good teacher fosters a sense of inquiry in the student. It’s fine to seek out, or to teach, basic ways of using the medium—we all have to start somewhere—but only insofar as it gets students to express what is theirs and theirs alone. A serious artist understands that medium supports the idea, whether it’s expressed realistically or abstractly, with formal rigor or expressive gesture, or anything in between. And a great artist integrates medium and idea so seamlessly that it’s never just about the wax, but about the way wax allows that idea to be expressed.