Beauty in Pigment and Wax

Conrad Wilde Gallery hosts a magnificent show exploring the possibilities of encaustic paints

Picture an enchanted broccoli forest.

No, not the classic vegetarian cookbook by Mollie Katzen. Instead of the thick volume of that title, imagine a 3-D forest in luxuriant green wax, with a dense cluster of polka-dotted broccoli stalks reaching up to the heavens.

If you can't imagine it yourself, artist Fanne Fernow has done the work for you. Her five-tree forest stands cheerfully on a shelf at Conrad Wilde Gallery, at Sixth and Sixth. Made of colorful encaustic painted on plaster, "Enchanted Broccoli Forest" is a standout in the gallery's Eighth Annual Encaustic Invitational exhibition.

Fernow's sculpture is exhibit A in the case for the versatility of encaustic paint. Miles Conrad, director of the gallery, has championed the medium for years and has had a fair amount of success in persuading Tucsonans of its allure. Until he came along a decade ago, hardly anyone on the local art scene knew what it was. (And in case you still don't, the online Free Dictionary defines encaustic as "a paint consisting of pigment mixed with melted beeswax; it is fixed with heat after application.")

This show of 31 encaustic works from artists in Tucson and elsewhere first of all demonstrates how easily encaustic paint takes to other materials. These artists have combined their hot wax with fabric, coffee, rust, wire, gourds, silk thread, steel, oil and acrylics. And that's just a partial list.

And their works show just how beautiful that combo of pigment and wax can be. The wax can be transparent or opaque—sometimes you can see through it, down into its deepest layers, and its texture is enticing. You just want to reach out and touch its smooth waxy surface. And the colors suspended in that wax are impossibly rich.

Fernow's greens, just for instance, are delectable. Her broccoli trees are coated in everything from cool-mint green to the pale yellow-green of springtime to the deep full green of summer. The tentacles of Stephanie Green's oceanesque "From the Deep" are tinted a lovely lavender. Red-orange bursts through thick swatches of turquoise in Margaret Suchland's "Marking Time." Suchland's painterly mixed media on wood suggests a landscape, or even a seascape, where the red marks the horizon line separating sky from sea.

Which brings us to another virtue of encaustics. They can be used to create sculptures (see Fernow) or paintings (Suchland), or artwork that sits in the borderlands between them.

Take Jeffrey Hirst's "Reflective Inventions," an assemblage that's made up of wood planks, encaustic paint, fabric and epoxy. Hirst painted the found wood scraps with encaustics, sometimes giving them a translucent waxy coat to let the natural wood colors shine through, sometimes painting them with designs in black. And he hung them on the wall—like a painting. There's a catch, though. The painted planks are stacked one atop the other, so that they jut out from the wall 15 inches—occupying the air the way a 3-D sculpture does.

Winston Lee Mascarenhas is another artist whose works inhabit an ambiguous space between genres. He has three 10-inch-square panels from his "Variation" series hanging on the wall, for all the world like paintings. Each one makes an intensive study of layered colors. "Variation 18" looks at beige over deep red; "19" is all about canary yellow above screaming orange; "20" is a writhing sky blue over earth brown.

But consider that word "writhing." These are no mere flat paintings: the wax has plumped up the sky-blue pigment, allowing it to wiggle like a fat worm across the panel. The yellow in "19" likewise forms thick 3-D drips. These "Variations" turn out to be odes to the joys of both color and shape.

In the realm of pure painting, the encaustics can mutate into thin watercolorlike washes. Alison Golder's engaging "Comfort Meditation" mixes encaustic, real coffee and rust. Liquidlike circles have seeped out of their spherical confines and set out across the pale coffee-colored background.

Amelia Currier's "Blooms III" is a monotype, a loose grid of nine colored orbs—their pigments turn them into posies—thinly printed on paper.

More often, the painterly encaustics run toward the thick and luscious. In "324 S. Ardmore," a painting whose title and structure conjure a sense of place, Molly Geissman has layered her colors beautifully. Pale cerulean and green roll out over a black under-painting. A pungent orange stripe runs across the high horizon. A winter-white sky is squeezed into a tiny space at the top.

Geissman has written that her place paintings start from a childhood memory. Faint pencil drawings in the paint sketch out rooftops and walls; a spoon drifts down through the blue. The black under-layer strategically bleeds through, creating evocative but ambiguous black shapes—a bedstead, perhaps, a window, the gable of a house.

"324 S. Ardmore" demonstrates that encaustics have enough heft to be a medium for psychological journeys and other serious subjects. Mascarenhas' "Variations" argue for encaustics' celebrations of pure color and form.

And then, of course, as in the case of Fernow's merry broccoli forest in wax, encaustics are also for artists who just want to have fun.