The Weight: Dealing with the Issue of “Encaustic Art”
By Joanne Mattera
In 1998 Gail Stavitsky curated Waxing Poetic: Encaustic Art in America for the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey. This was a landmark museum exhibition, a scholarly survey that placed a historic medium within the context of contemporary art. The exhibition also introduced the phrase “encaustic art,” to a broad audience. In an odd turn of events since then, while art made with encaustic has become ever more visible in galleries and museums, art fairs and art publications, “encaustic art” has gone in the other direction, coming to represent conceptually unsophisticated efforts with the medium.
By 2006, the antithetical divide between art in encaustic and “encaustic art” had become so great that I wrote an essay for my then-new blog. I called it I Am Not an “Encaustic Artist”. (It wasn’t a new idea for me—as a painter, no adjective, I intentionally did not use the phrase in my 2001 book—but after seeing the number of “encaustic art” shows and groups that had been proliferating since Waxing Poetic, I felt it was time to say something.) This is what I said:
“I love encaustic. I’ve been working with it for 16 years. I participate in, and go to see, “encaustic shows”—they’re a great way to see the wonderful variety of artistic expression in pigmented wax. (Though I make a point of participating in thematic shows as well.) And I admire and respect the work of many, many, many artists who work in encaustic. I just think we need to think hard about how we define ourselves and our work.”
The point was missed by at least one commenter, who assumed my intent was to distance myself from the medium. In retrospect I see that the commenter’s indignation was a harbinger of the defensiveness of wax-world identity politics that has continued to this day. The following question, posed recently by a well-respected member of our community has rekindled my interest in addressing the issue in a forum such as this:
“We all agree that calling ourselves “encaustic artists” is not helpful to our careers. And yet we have our Facebook page, our Conference, our medium-specific shows. I understand that educating the public about the medium is helpful, and raising the bar is a most worthy pursuit, but . . . while resisting calling ourselves “encaustic artists,” aren’t we doing exactly what we are denying?”
As the author of the book that helped ignite the current interest in encaustic and founder of the first Conference devoted to the study of the medium, I have struggled with this question. I would say that we are not doing what we deny; in fact we are doing the opposite. My personal response has been to professionalize the standards for the Encaustic Conference, to broaden the scope of Conference offerings, and to exhort my professional colleagues to join with me in “raising the bar” in hopes that our collective example will inspire others. Last year I put those ideas into an essay, Encaustic: Art, Craft Hobby. The essay was intended as a tool for discussion. The professionals rallied around it; the amateurs circled their wagons; the folks in the middle took sides. And yet, the issue remains, perhaps more pressing than ever.
I asked the ProWax group for their responses to the question posed above. Here’s some of the discussion, edited for brevity and organized for cohesiveness.
Howard Hersh: “This conversation is especially poignant to me because I have benefitted greatly from my association with the medium. In a crowded and competitive art world, standing out for any reason is a good thing. The problem, now that the world is flooded with artists using encaustic, is that the association with the medium connects us to a lower standard, the hobbyists’. I am all for raising the bar, but the question is: Can this mission be accomplished or are we inviting more (unwanted) attention to the medium?”
Ruth Hiller: “I want to reiterate what Howard has said. I have found camaraderie, learned amazing things and benefitted as an artist through R&F and . . . the Conference. I have had many opportunities that I would not have had outside this arena. I have learned how to raise the bar.”
Jennie Frederick: “I only knew what I had seen . . . very bad, very thick and poorly conceived work done with encaustic paint. Then I saw Paula Roland’s work at William Siegel Gallery in Santa Fe. Talk about a different ballgame!”
Those three comments suggested several categories for consideration:
Our Venues/ Our Selves
There are many options for exhibition, but we’ve all learned, as Jennie’s introduction to Paula’s work makes clear, that the more professional the setting, the more professionally the work will be received. In no small part this is because the selection of works by a gallerist or bona fide curator helps separate the art from the “encaustic art.” Moreover, there are many ways we deal with exhibition options. Some voices:
. No more wax shows: “The issue of how I define myself and how I identify as an artist is central to my work, says Milisa Galazzi. “I have been a professional artist for 35 years . . . incorporating encaustic into my work since 2004. I am no longer applying to shows with “wax” in the title. That feels too limiting to me. I am thinking more about what I am calling my ‘crossover niche.’ I define this as where themes and materials interconnect with other ideas and forms in my work. For me this is gender, human connections, fiber, paper, wax. I am starting to see my career as a Venn Diagram and the sections that cross over are the places where I find the most opportunity and the most interest to me.”
. Context: “I call myself simply “an artist,” since my work is not defined by the material I choose,” says Maritza Ruiz-Kim. “I would never call myself an encaustic artist or a metal artist or a watercolor/gouache artist. I participate in communities that challenge my work and whose professional standards and/or aspirations are similar to my own. . . . I am interested in medium-specific shows to the extent that they provide the best context for my work, but I don’t think it serves my work or the medium to view work that is medium specific without some larger narrative or framework.”
. It’s just another medium, but . . . “As a painter for many years before being introduced to encaustic, I have always considered myself a visual artist,” says Cheryl McClure, whose “dominant medium” had long been acrylic on canvas. “I still try to limit the mention of a medium when talking about my work unless asked specifically. I have also limited the ‘encaustic shows’ except for wanting to take part in those connected with the Conference.” Why? It’s the association with the lower standard, says Cheryl. “Problems seem to arise when those who have not been artists start with encaustic and become ’encaustic artists.’”
Experience and Education
Elena De La Ville clarifies the problem that Cheryl has just noted: “One of the main differences that I see [between artists and “encaustic artists”] is that those of us who are established artists have studied. We have laid the foundation in our own practice and we are innovators. We have a long track record. We teach. A critical mass in encaustic is populated by amateurs who are drawn to the same medium we were drawn to but with hardly any training in concept or art principles.
“What I’d like to do,” continues Elena, “is set an example about good practice, about significant art, about concept and innovation. Being an artist is not a swift race to the top. It is a step-by-step process in which we learn from our mistakes as we find a way to communicate through our art. That is what raises the bar. I am sure some ‘encaustic artists’ will do that too, in time, but not everyone keeps at it long enough to make a meaningful contribution.”
I’d add that for self-defined “encaustic artists” looking to make a meaningful contribution, opportunities for involvement beyond “encaustic art” are available. Conference aside, there are a number of teaching professionals who offer entree to a higher level of thinking and achievement. They make their presence known on the various Facebook pages that attract those interested in encaustic. However the artists who reflexively slam the door on a way of engaging more broadly are likely to forever remain “encaustic artists”—more weight on a bar that is getting ever heavier to raise.
Raising the Bar
As we distance ourselves from the limiting identity of “encaustic artist”— it’s important we not deny encaustic itself. Nancy Natale offers perspective: “I really think my work would not have developed as it has without my using encaustic. It took me many years to arrive at a signature look and conceptual framework for my interests. I am still inventing new approaches to my work, and just about all of them involve encaustic. The reason we are able to keep organizing shows, conferences and discussion around encaustic is that it offers a veritable infinity of ways to use it.”
I think of the comment by a visitor to the Swept Away exhibition at the Cape Cod Museum of Art this past June. Surveying the show during a panel discussion, he said, with a combination of awe and authority, “This is what encaustic can be.” It was a high point in an exhibition with many high points.
Can we—as Jane Guthridge says, “use the power of a group to elevate the way encaustic is seen in the art world” –or will the collective weight of “encaustic art” connect us, as Howard fears, to “a lower standard.”
Jane Allen Nodine is realistic: “There will always be hobbyists using encaustic wax—and instructors promoting formulaic exercises for their workshops.”
Francesca Azzara is optimistic. “The medium is in an adolescent phase. These are growing pains. I believe the work of gifted artists working in encaustic will settle into the company of fine art done in any medium.”
I am ambivalent; call it pessimistically optimistic. I continue to pursue my personal, largely encaustic-based practice, and I’m directing the Conference into a more art-world-focused arena, supported by a visionary co-producer, an immensely talented ad hoc faculty, and hundreds of conferees over the past seven years who are invested in their professional practice or working toward professional goals. I have long said that one may arrive at the Conference an “encaustic artist” but leave an artist, with a broader sense of what is possible technically and conceptually.
But there’s no denying the huge organizational weight of mediocrity which supports, encourages and exhibits “encaustic art.” I don’t see that changing. (And I have no intention of trying to change it; if it serves its constituency, so be it.)
So to answer the original question, “Aren’t we doing exactly what we are denying?” I would say no, not at all. In ProWax we have gathered and identified as professionals who are working in encaustic. But to Howard’s question—which I’d paraphrase as, “Can we raise the bar without being pulled down by the weight of “encaustic art?”—sadly, I don’t think so.
But . . .
I don’t know why I it took me so long to realize this: Perhaps it’s time to disengage from the weight. Without it, there’s no limit to how high we can raise the bar! We are visual artists. Our efforts should be visible and they should be exemplary.
Each of us will determine how to be an exemplar in a way that is best for us personally, but I see many possibilities:
- Present yourself in a larger arena. Say goodbye to the “encaustic shows,” or at least wean yourself on those with strong themes. And while you’re limiting, be choosy about the venues and organizers. These are ideas already expressed by Misa, Maritza and Cheryl in this essay
- Speak about your work, limiting the tech talk in favor of the what and why. This raises your personal bar and, by extension the collective bar as well
- Curate! Most of us won’t get the opportunity to curate in a museum setting, but there are plenty of opportunities in non-profits, libraries, historical societies, small commercial galleries, or pop ups. This is a chance to raise the bar for and with others
- Write! Blogs, books and personal catalogs all help us stake out a broader space
- Find a mentor; there’s always someone farther along the path than you
- Be a mentor; you have much to offer someone who is not as far along
- Collaborate on teaching or exhibition projects, as so many of us have been doing already
- Organize, whether it’s a study group, a critique group, a retreat, a session to learn a skill like Photoshop or professional presentation. ProWax Journal is a fine example of raising the bar
- Feel free to add to this list in the comment section, found to the left of the article title in most browsers
While we engage in a dialogue with encaustic in the studio, and in conversation with one another in ProWax and elsewhere, our larger interaction must remain in the art world with contemporary art.
“Encaustic art”, meanwhile, is free to find its own path, likely creating a place for itself alongside macramé owls, decoupage and painting on velvet.
Joanne Mattera is a widely exhibited painter who works in a style that is chromatically resonant and compositionally reductive. Chromatic Reasoning, her 29th career solo, will take place at Conrad Wilde Gallery, Tucson, in December. Joanne is responsible for two important firsts in the encaustic community: She is the author of The Art of Encaustic Painting (Watson Guptill, 2001) and founder of the now-Provincetown-based International Encaustic Conference, which she produces in conjunction with Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill and its director, Cherie Mittenthal. She made her first encaustic painting in 1969, but she is not now, nor has she ever been, an “encaustic artist.” Her coverage of the Miami art fairs can be found on her Joanne Mattera Art Blog in December.