Encaustic (that’s wax!) art show at Boston Center for the Arts

Last Friday’s sequence of events leading up to an ideal evening went like this: I was walking the kids to the park on Friday afternoon and spotted a bright green Honda (the boxy model) with two bumper stickers: eARTh, and “Make Art Not War.” Intrigued, I slowed down. A woman exited in a flurry, asked me if I was crossing, giving me an opportunity to compliment her bumper philosophy, and we started chatting. It turned out she was helping to organize an art show at the Boston Center for the Arts’s Mills Gallery that evening. Coincidentally, next door to where we had dinner reservations for my birthday.

The Mills Gallery show – titled The Future of the Past: Encaustic Art in the 21st Century because the encaustic medium is among the world’s oldest art forms – was the place to be in the South End that night. By the time we arrived around 8, the organizers were flustered because they’d run out of wine (a good sign, and all the more reason to visit The Butcher Shop wine bar across the street). And the great turnout wasn’t a coincidence: the show, a survey of wax art curated by MassWax (the local chapter of International Encaustic Artists), is fascinating. It was my first encounter with the encaustic medium, and Connie (of the bumper stickers) explained a bit about the complex layering process, the possibilities for incorporating so many materials into the incredibly deep (in the visual sense: you feel as if you could fall into many of the works like through glacial ice), the care with which it must be sealed in…

A brief explanation of the medium’s history:

Encaustic is derived from enkaustikos (Greek) – “to burn in.” Greek painters used encaustic as early as in the 1st century BC, making it one of the oldest and most enduring of all artistic mediums. (Though as early as in the 5th century BC, the Greeks used encaustic to repair and weatherproof ships!) Encaustic paint is a blend of beeswax and color pigment – and resin, which helps harden the wax and raise its melting temperature (so this wax won’t melt – something I admit I wondered as soon as I learned what the works were made of).

The work of Karl Zerbe, who was a key figure in the revival of encaustic in the 20th century – and was also the head of Painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from 1937-1955 – is featured in the show, so you know you’re looking at a curating job that serves up the best of the best. The show is fascinating not only because of the caliber of work on display, but also because the contemporary works represent a thoroughly modern take on an ancient medium, showcasing just how diverse a product a single medium can generate.

I wish I’d had my camera and taken some photos, but no camerawork of mine could translate the encaustic effect from the canvas (or wood panel, or other surface) to the web. To get the sense of depth and meticulous layering, you have to see it with your own eyes.

And until December, you can! I recommend this one highly.

Boston Center for the Arts | 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02116

The Future of the Past: Encaustic Art in the 21st Century. October 5 – December 2, 2012. Curated by MassWax and International Encaustic Artists (IEA) Members Barb Cone and Harriet Chenkin. Wednesday & Sunday: 12 to 5pm. Thursday, Friday & Saturday: 12 to 9pm. Holiday hours: Mills Gallery will be closed Thursday-Friday, November 22-23.


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