The medium of encaustic is both old and new. Some of the earliest paintings of Western civilization are encaustic funereal portraits from Hellenistic Egypt. But the technique - involving beeswax, resin and pigment - was so demanding and cumbersome that it eventually became a "lost art." In the 20th century, however, thanks to improved technologies and commercially available mixtures, encaustic underwent a revival. Now, its popularity seems to grow each year.
Encaustic's timeless allure is evident in a shared exhibit of paintings by Alexandria Bottinelli, Jill Herrick-Lee and Christopher Thompson at Studio Place Arts in Barre.
The oldest painting presented by East Calais artist Bottinelli is her 1996 "Mexico Series: Warrior." The 12-by-12-inch encaustic collage on panel has a wrinkled, bronze-colored surface that she divided into a loose grid of nine squares with raised lines. Patches of light blue and red, along with mysterious embedded objects, encrust the painting's uneven surface.
Bottinelli affixed a large chunk of honeycomb to the center of "Honey," an 11-by-11-inch, mottled turquoise piece from 2008. It's like an homage to the insects that produced the wax she so skillfully manipulates. Circles of various sizes are embedded within the upper layers of this relic-looking piece, echoing the cells of the honeycomb.
Encaustic is applied in translucent layers, with each application melded to the previous one with heat. In her 13-by-13-inch "Deer," also from 2008, Bottinelli smoothed wax over cutout images of a reindeer and a polar bear. Its negative space is a creamy beige color, and random circles appear again as ambiguous design elements.
Herrick-Lee's vertical 24-by-48-inch "Use This Book" also spreads wax over paper. The artist from South Hamilton, Massachusetts, shredded pages from a book and jumbled the indecipherable scraps in layers just below her blue-and-earth-tone blotchy surface. The piece is Herrick-Lee's moodiest offering in the show - most of her pieces are bright and playful. The 8-by-16-inch "Space Landing" is made from two square panels conjoined vertically and topped by three game pieces - in yellow, red, yellow - like pieces from a Parcheesi set. Colorful circles incised around their edges dance over Herrick-Lee's encaustic panels.
Thompson, a Burlington-based artist, incises lines into encaustics as well. These form complex funnel-like shapes, like curved grids mapping out black holes or other strange astrophysical phenomena. "Untitled #9" is a 34-by-44-inch Naples yellow-and-black field, with Thompson's fine lines swirling across the picture plane. These scrape through upper encaustic layers to expose pure yellow below. Thompson also uses oil paint, and the surface black color may be oil buffed into the wax.
Similar etched lines scarify "Untitled #6." Buffed red layers applied over yellow combine into a rich red-orange field. Hazy, dark oil paint again picks up textures on the lush surface. The hot-colored "Untitled #6" seems like a satellite image of the atmosphere of Jupiter's red-orange volcanic moon Io.
Thompson's calmer "Untitled #12" is a horizontal 35-by-23-inch piece; blue-gray corners edged a milky central area marked by a welter of fine, concave black lines. Bits of faux gold leif are scattered around the encaustic surface. The work is peaceful by virtue of its heavenly hues, yet the lines shooting from top to bottom also render it dynamic.
Ralph Mayer's The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques says of encaustic: "It can be polished to a high gloss, it can be modeled, sculpted, textured, and combined with collage materials. It cools immediately, so that there is no drying time, yet it can always be reworked." Encaustic also "has no toxic fumes, nor does it require the use of solvents. As a result, a number of health hazards are reduced or eliminated" from the process.
Given the remarkable attributes and malleable beauty of encaustic, it seems unlikely that the ancient art will ever disappear again.