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Just the Wax

Medium-focused show doesn't serve medium very well

Sandy Sedmak Engel's "Going to Brighton Beach."

By Alex Ebstein | Posted 4/29/2009

Wax Actual, the group show of representational, encaustic painters in the Creative Alliance's upstairs Amalie Rothschild Gallery, has trouble finding a voice for the medium it seeks to champion. The encaustic medium--basically pigmented hot wax, which is generally turned to for its seductive ability to capture light or produce flat or uniquely textured surfaces, as in the paintings of Canadian artist Tony Scherman--loses its excitement between the conservative imagery and erratic application. Curated by Creative Alliance's resident encaustic painter, Christine Sajecki--whose work far outstrips any artists she includes--and writer Joseph Young, the exhibition looks self-defeating, presenting the medium, in most cases, as extraneous.

Of the 10 paintings in the small exhibition, only three demonstrate an admirable grasp of the medium. Many of the included artists appear to have picked up the medium (perhaps for its novelty) and run with it, without stopping to explore it for its unique characteristics. Without the title tip-off, it would be hard to guess that encaustic is a common thread throughout the show. In the hexagonal "El Jardinero," Margarita Friedman portrays a vibrant portrait of a gardener. While the painting is technically excellent, and the portrait undeniably charming, Friedman's medium is questionable. The bold palette and the painterly application of the medium are so similar to oil that the choice of encaustic appears superfluous. The luminescence that encaustic can capture in a surface is lost in the dimples of the brush strokes and the boldness of the color, rendering the medium unrecognizable. Similarly, the flat, thin paint application in Randall Steeves' "Ordinary Americans" might as well be acrylic, with the encaustic effectively disguised. Seemingly out of place among the colorful canvases and panels, Micah Cash's abstracted, black-and-white landscapes in Sumi ink and beeswax again bend the medium in an unsuccessful direction. The hazy gradient of white sky to black tree line in both pieces would be better served in watercolor, as the wax is an undetectable element in the images.

Susanne Arnold includes two paintings in the show, "By the Waters of Babylon: Fire" and "By the Waters of Babylon: Fallout," featuring scenes of people working along the shore. Arnold distorts the encaustic pigment by adding sand to the piece where sand is depicted. While the technique explores wax's ability to adhere additional materials to a painting's surface, the effect is similar to using glue, and the gritty texture is both dull and overworked. Jeff Schaller's "London" shows a woman in an unnatural, hunched posture with the word "London" painted horizontally across the canvas. While the overall image is slick, the paint is applied thinly with no attention given to the medium's ability to be built up and modeled.

Sandra Sedmak Engel, Pat Dennis, and Rebecca Cason, all Baltimore-based painters, demonstrate a contrastingly sophisticated craftsmanship, if slightly more passé imagery. Engel's stylized portrait of a young woman, entitled "Going to Brighton Beach," is composed and crafted like pieces of a puzzle. Relatively smooth and pleasingly waxy on the surface, closer inspection reveals what looks like a careful, reduction process of grooving the hardened background before adding additional color to the surface. Her meticulous manipulation of the wax prevents the colors from mixing, and produces crisp, controlled line work. Dennis' painting, "Four Horses," is a front view of four horses in motion. The bodies and faces are slightly relieved from the surface, the wax applied thickly, allowing it to drip naturally and spontaneously throughout the image. Cason's small portrait of a girl, "Katherine," looks like a resin-dipped Renoir postcard. Using a photo transfer, all the detail work is smoothly encased within a glossy, top layer of wax looking both polished and synthetic.

The exhibition overall is an insignificant sample of the encaustic medium. Aesthetically inconsistent and undoubtedly limited by its given space, the show fails to present a compelling case for the narrow subject matter on which it focuses. In presenting a show of encaustic work, a fairly unpopular medium, broadening the subject matter and choosing the best examples of encaustic painting would have better served the general curatorial mission.

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