with Alexandre Masino
By Nancy Natale
When I attended Alexandre Masino’s talk, Advanced Techniques & Studio Practice, last June at the Tenth International Encaustic Conference, I was immediately impressed with the way he spoke about the process and practice of painting. I recognized him as a painter’s painter, someone who knows the ins and outs of the medium and speaks with authority and easy references to the activity, the obsession, the problems, and the thrill of making paintings. He was someone I wanted to know more about and this interview provided me with the opportunity.
Alexandre Masino painting in his studio, 2016
Photo: Yechel Gagnon
NN: To begin with some technical information, I know you heat your wax in cans on a double boiler, which is a little unusual, but then when I watched your video (in French), I saw that you also paint vertically, which is very atypical of painting with encaustic. Would you tell me more about this method and what it allows you to accomplish with your work?
AM: Everything that applies to painting in general applies to our medium of encaustic. Before devoting my practice to encaustic, I experienced that standing and painting at an easel gave me a liberty of movement that was critical to my painting process. When I began using encaustic, I knew two major painters who used the medium, Jasper Johns and Tony Scherman. They both painted vertically, so I never questioned it.
Another view of Alexandre working on an encaustic painting
Photo: Yechel Gagnon
I started exploring the use of encaustic by myself, without attending any workshops, about a year before Joanne’s book was published in 2001. Teaching oneself a specific medium is a difficult learning curve (years of trial and error can be saved by attending workshops at the Conference). I was on my own and found that the glazing techniques and other methods I was used to had to be thrown out the window. The medium was so physical that I sometimes felt like a construction worker, and I had to appropriate unusual tools. All my working habits had to be redesigned.
Now when I teach, I advocate for the advantages of working on an easel, however I do work both vertically and horizontally. Each method has advantages that we must make the most of. My easel is completely vertical—a real 90 degrees, not tilted at an angle. This means that most of the time when my brush drips, the paint doesn’t fall on my painting but just in front of it. Using the easel allows me to see my painting in the same position as it will be experienced by the viewer.
Sculptural buildup of wax drips on front of the easel
Also, painting requires movement. It is a choreography inscribed in matter, so having freedom of movement adds to the painting vocabulary. Standing upright and facing an easel allows you to move your fingers, your wrist, your elbow, your shoulder—your entire body—in a much freer manner than when you are crouched over a table. For a painterly or expressionist application of paint, it makes a lot of sense to work with an easel. I have even achieved a level of control where I can now fuse my paintings on the easel without any sliding of the surface.
NN: How did the use of double-boilers and cans come about?
Paint cans in double boilers
AM: That came when I first started using encaustic. During my college studies at Cégep du Vieux-Montréal, I experienced severe health problems due to heavy solvent exposure in badly ventilated classrooms. Working with oil paint became impossible for me, so I thought for a long time that encaustic was out of reach as well. I basically had to find a way to use it while keeping my studio air as clean as possible. I found that with the double boiler system there were no fumes since the paint never overheated. This was the first and most important advantage for me.
I never want to change this way of working as it gives me so many advantages: the cans contain larger quantities of wax because of their extra depth, I am able to bring the cans to my easel so my brushes don’t get cold between the stove and my painting, and my brushes stay submerged in wax so that the ferrules and the bristles stay warm longer, providing me with the possibility of longer brushmarks. Also, I can easily change and adjust my palette as I replace one color with another one just by switching cans.
La dérive des siècles (Drifting of Centuries), 2016; encaustic, gold leaf and copper leaf on panel; 46 x 32 inches (117 x 81 centimeters)
NN: Tell us about the other tool for which you have a great fondness.
AM: The third technical element that I always promote, but which does not seem to be used a lot, is the fan brush. It works wonders with encaustic. It holds more medium than a small brush so it stays warm longer and it is very versatile. With the same brush you can do fine lines and details or build up textures. You can also fill up large areas, depending which side of the brush you are using and the angle at which you hold it in relation to the panel.
NN: Let’s talk about your painting process. You also work in encaustic monotypes and have generously shared information about your techniques in your blog. [Also I see that you recently received a grant that allowed you to begin intaglio printmaking that you combine with encaustic monotypes.] Would you explain more about this and show some examples?
Cette marée de pierre III (This Tide of Stone), 2012, encaustic monotype on Gampi paper, 23 x 34.5 inches (58 x 88 centimeters)
I was introduced to encaustic monotype in a demo by Paula Roland during the first year of the International Encaustic Conference. From the beginning I wondered how I could integrate elements of images that could be duplicated in printmaking and then transformed on the hotbox into unique works with encaustic. That is, I wanted to make monoprints as well as monotypes. I think it’s important to differentiate the two: monoprints have an element that can be repeated while monotypes are solely one-off. I have always been very fond of Edvard Munch’s approach to printmaking, which gives a feeling of everything being possible. One image is repeated in many different color combinations, while compositions are reworked and even collaged. His prints achieve a real playfulness because of his free approach.
In my attempts to make monoprints, I tried techniques such as printing with collagraph plates, but I realized that what I really wanted to achieve was a dialogue between finely drawn lines and the expressive physicality of encaustic. Intaglio printing with encaustic monotypes became the obvious method to achieve this combination.
Lexan plate with three versions of an intaglio and encaustic monoprint
However, since I am very sensitive to solvents, I could not work with traditional etching acids or oil-based inks. I developed a way to engrave Lexan plates [polycarbonate sheet similar to acrylic plexiglass] using a dremel and other carving tools. I ink the plates using Akua water-based, non-toxic inks, and I print them on Japanese paper to later work on them with encaustic monotype. Using Lexan for plates is not recommended by master printmakers since the plates are impossible to ink twice identically, as is necessary for printing editions. However, my goal is precisely to make unique prints rather than editions. When I ink my plates, I make a point of being very painterly in the manner that I wipe the ink out, and I even paint with the ink to rework the image in relation to the engraved lines. This way I have a different ground each time that I start the encaustic monotypes. The transparency of the plate is very useful in figuring out what the final image will look like.
NN: Although your work would probably be referred to as representational, I know that you use the subject matter as a means of connecting to traditions in art history as well as making the objects that you portray have symbolical power and meaning. What is your intention more explicitly, and how do you go about accomplishing what you call “a synthesis of the past and the present?”
I love this question. Thank you for tackling these rarely-brought-up notions and addressing the “synthesis of the past and the present”.
It is true that I believe in history. It is only through understanding the human condition throughout time that we can gain some knowledge of ourselves. I want to link things and not to isolate them. I believe reality is complex and it should not be put into small boxes or arbitrary categorizations.
Évoquer les jours (Evoking the Days), 2014, encaustic and copper leaf on panel, 11 x 12 inches (28 x 30.5 centimeters)
A symbol is something that represents or suggests another idea or entity—something precise. In this regard my work is not symbolic as I don’t work with allegories. On the contrary, I want as much as possible to broaden the interpretations of my work. But you are right; I always integrate many different levels of meaning in my work. For example, when I paint still lifes, I paint only one type of fruit at a time, thereby allowing the fruits to represent beings rather than only fruit. If I were to paint pears and apples together, they would remain pears and apples, but by painting two pears side by side, I paint a couple.
If I paint an open pomegranate, I show the continuity of life with the seeds. Such an image might also be understood as portraying an intimate internal reality contrasted with what we see from the outside. This is the dichotomy between the external and the internal. By painting an apple, an apple core and a seed, I paint time: present, past and future.
NN: Is this emphasis on layered meanings reflected in the titles of your paintings?
AM: In a subtle way, all my work is a form of multidisciplinary dialogue. My titles are chosen to open up the meaning and provide possible levels of interpretation. They derive from quotes in poems or essays or they have a link to mythology, history, or art history. I believe that this provides a dialogue with another medium and creates something larger than the anecdotal aspect of the represented elements. I don’t think it is important to know the exact sources of my titles to appreciate them, but in an oblique way, they add to the whole body of information that is conveyed.
Rêves éveillés (Waking Dreams), 2015, encaustic and gold leaf on panel, 32 x 46 inches (81 x 117 centimeters)
I believe my works are philosophical in many aspects even if they don’t shout it out. In contemporary art we tend to associate philosophy with extremely cerebral and austere works, but I stand against this narrow definition. Art can be sensual and intellectual at the same time.
NN: What do you strive for in your work?
AM: My works are very painterly. To really appreciate them, they need to be seen in the flesh. My work is about the lived experience, as expressed in nuances of colors, textures, and how the painting reacts and changes when viewed from various perspectives or in different lighting. But my fascination with paint and its sensual and evocative quality doesn’t mean that my thinking process is solely materially based.
Synthèse (Synthesis), 2015, encaustic and copper leaf on panel, 16 x 16 inches (40.5 x 40.5 centimeters)
Although my work is strongly rooted in the history of painting and many different aspects of the craft of painting, that does not mean I am not precisely aware of contemporary realities. We live in fast times where everything is speeded up, but I propose to make paintings that are difficult to reproduce and which you have to spend time with to fully appreciate. It is my deep belief that slow food is better than fast food.
NN: One more important influence for you, in life and in art, is Asia. Would you tell us more about it?
AM: I have always been drawn to the cultural history of Japan, its esthetic and its philosophy. For more than 10 years now I have been practicing Qi Gong, and I am really moved by writings of the Taoists, Chinese philosophers—Lao-Tseu, Tchouang-Tseu—who date back more than 2000 years. I have studied the work and the writings of many Chinese scholar-painters such as Shitao and Chu Ta.
Kintsukuroi (Japanese art form of repair), 2014, encaustic and gold leaf on panel, 11 x 12 inches (28 x 30.5 centimeters)
In 2010 I traveled through Japan for a month and had the rare opportunity to be accompanied by someone who knew the country thoroughly and who could speak the language. We stayed in ryokan, traditional inns, in order to live the culture as much as possible. This voyage had an immense impact on my practice. It was by experiencing first hand their temples, shrines and esthetic that I developed an interest in integrating gold and copper leaf into my paintings. What really struck a fundamental chord with me was their appreciation of the beauty of shadows to reveal light, their wabi-sabi philosophy of acceptance of imperfections and impermanence along with the understanding that the natural aging of objects gives them richness and warmth. It is this spirit that I try to convey through my use of metallic pigments.
The Chinese and Japanese traditional painters have a different compositional approach from Westerners, and it is extremely rich to create dialogues between these traditions. For example, we Westerners tend to think of the void as something negative. For Chinese scholars emptiness is fundamental as the place where changes can occur; it is the necessary place for transformations. Everything is in the dialogue between the full and the void, between form and the possibility of mutations within a cyclical conception of time. These notions are crucial and inform all of my work.
NN: Your series of Ehon, meaning painted books in Japanese, is a body of work strongly influenced by your interest in Asia that you have developed over time. I am saving most of your response about this beautiful format for a later article on artists’ books, but I wanted to mention them because they are an important part of your practice.
AM: My use of Ehon and of intaglio have inspired a real cross-pollination in my studio over the last months. I now integrate more and more the use of drawing into my actual paintings in dialogue with the painterly elements.
Frontières du possible (Frontiers of the Possible), 2016; encaustic, gold leaf and copper leaf on panel; 32 x 23 inches (81 x 58.5 centimeters)
NN: And finally, at the Conference, I purchased a beautiful catalog from you that documented a show called Correspondances at Dawson College in Montreal featuring your work along with that of your spouse, Yechel Gagnon. What’s it like to share life with another artist?
AM: I feel extremely privileged that Yechel and I share common careers as well as a deep interest in the dialogue between Eastern and the Western cultures. Our work is quite different from each other from a formal point of view, but it is very similar in its meditative quality and in the influences that inform it. It’s great to have someone to talk to and exchange ideas with on a daily basis. We know each other’s work in a very intrinsic manner while not being worried that our two bodies of work are too similar. It’s also a great exercise to comment and critique each other’s work regularly. It trains our vision in a broader manner than if we were only looking at our own production. Although it’s extremely time consuming to be creating and promoting two bodies of work and two careers, the advantages are enriching and really wonderful. We manage to create a real sense of collaboration where we do everything that we can so that the other’s production can bloom as much as possible.
Yechel Gagnon’s website
The Correspondances catalog is not available online but may be purchased directly from Alexandre for $25, including shipping. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.