Group 10: Beeswax on Paper 1992 -1994

The meaning that a material can bring to the making of an artwork first entered my consciousness through the work of Joseph Beuys. I went to that first Guggenheim show in ‘79 and attended the contentious lecture that followed at Cooper Union. During the talk, a small group of us defended the artist from hecklers in the crowd, much to his amusement. His work opened up a new area for many in my generation.

In 1992 I began to branch out looking for another material after having worked with clay for two years. One day I was driving around in Springs and I saw a sign on someone’s yard that said “beeswax and honey. “ I stopped and knocked on the door. An older man answered and invited me in. I asked about his beeswax and he asked what I wanted to use it for. I said “Maybe painting ?”. He asked, “ You make the Ukraine eggs ? Me too!”, and before I could answer he showed me a glass case with a number of beautifully painted Easter eggs. He had worked in traditional method using the wax as a resist with inks and dyes as colors. They have a tiny tool that allows them to apply narrow lines of wax to the eggs surface. Anyway after looking at the eggs, which were painted with incredible intricacy, I bought a few pounds of his beeswax. It was funky and unfiltered so it had bee carcasses and other debris in it. The honeyed smell was insidious. I was hooked.

So, as in working with clay and letting it lead me to images that related to the earth, I “asked” the beeswax what the imagery should be. It had a very 19th century connotation, very agrarian. The amber color of it also conspired to put me in a frame of mind where I could conjure up images of the past. Wheat, corn, railroad spikes, a harmonica, canoes, old guitars, a steam pipe hat, old tools – these images seemed to be related and they inspired me. I took to reading about Lincoln, and I re-read a lot of Whitman’s work. The Civil War also became a source for some of the images. One work was derived from an image of the sunken hulls of warships of the 1860s. For me, one of the most important pieces was “Lincoln’s Hat” which depicted the stovepipe hat he was known for wearing. There was a tiny hole in it which revealed a red spot…

At the time I was also working on making recordings of songs I had been writing and they too were “old timey”, so I was inundated with 19th century aesthetics. Later on, when there was a resurgence of interest in ” old America” evidenced by movies like O Brother Where Art Thou, and Ken Burns’ Civil War, I felt I had been a kind of scout by re-assessing archetypal images embedded in the American psyche which lingered from that period, a period of fecundity that bloomed into the folk music of Dylan, The Band and others. It was interesting to bring it to painting.

Technically, the works were relatively simple. I’d melt the wax and then draw the chosen image. The paper I used was given to me by Alfonso Ossorio, at the end of his life. It was part of a ream of an un-sized cotton rag. It had a watermark; a rose on a stem and the maker’s name “Avergne” was embossed into the surface. The paper was very old. A lot of it had been ruined by foxing, but I was able to salvage many sheets to work on. The bees wax would melt right through it and often after painting the image on one side, I would turn the paper over to discover the other side was more compelling.

This brings up an interesting aspect, that of having “permission” to do things because one has seen them done before. This is why exposure to other art is so important. In my case, I had seen the ‘40s and ‘50s works by James Brooks first hand while cataloging them during these years at his studio in Springs. Jim had worked with a loose weave canvas called “osnaberg”. Applying oils to the front, the canvas was so porous that the paint flowed through it to the back. He then would sometimes turn the canvas around and finish it on that side. He even had one or two that were “completed” on both sides. His process had so much to do with the chance operations explored by the Abstract Expressionists and those had related to Surrealist techniques of working blind or letting images arrive out of the unconscious through “automatic writing”. Jim’s work provided the precedent that allowed me to think about the front and / or the backs of works.

In addition, wax had for years, been used to resist water-based colors like watercolor or ink, in the creation of works on paper. Ossorio was a master of the wax resist technique, but I had first learned about it from my father. Victor Brauner was an early pioneer in the technique. So I was familiar with the concept of resist technologies, that is, hiding or saving one layer below another through some form of masking agent. At some point I started to apply colors to the papers I was working on prior to applying the melted wax. Though not strictly a resist, the wax melting through the paper made it translucent, so the color I had applied to the other side, which did not penetrate through the paper, was made visible, brought forward in a sense, by the translucency of the paper made by the melted wax. This became my obsession and it still exists in the kinds of work I have done subsequently.

Because I used a small torch then to re-melt the wax, sometimes holes would be burned in the paper. Ironically, the wax actually protected the paper beneath it so it was the areas of unprotected paper around the wax that burned. This could be called a wax and fire resist. The burnt holes became another element in my repertoire then. In one review at the time the art critic, the late Rose Slivka, related what I was doing to some of Conrad Marca Relli’s work, another artist whom I knew from my youth and whose studio I had frequently been in, as the Marca-Rellis lived just up the street from my parent’s house and would often invite us over for lunch.

This body of work inspired paintings done at the end of the decade, which were made on muslin. The two main things about this body of work was how the material helped spawn the imagery, and that I had used a Neo-Expressionist mode to explore 19th century imagery. I was proud to be included in the first museum show on encaustic, called Waxing Poetic at the Montclair Art Museum and Knoxville Museum.

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