This post comes to us from Victoria Villano, Curatorial Intern.
Thought-provoking, mysterious, whimsical, abstract: there are many words one can use to describe the artwork found in Romantic Nature, the mid-career retrospective of artist Martin Kline (on view in the McKernan Gallery until June 17). What about waves, currents of air, microscopic organisms, and mosaics? While such associations (and there can be countless others) may not immediately come to mind, after the initial encounter with the color and intricacy of Kline’s paintings and sculptures, you may find yourself teasing out the wide array of references, both natural and cultural, that are embedded in them. But beyond asking yourself why Kline has made what he has, the ultimate question on your mind is probably how.
The simple answer is through the process of encaustic painting, also known as “hot wax painting.” The term “encaustic” comes from the Greek word, enkaustikos, meaning “to heat or burn in.” Heat is used throughout the process, from melting the beeswax to fusing it back together. The wax can be used alone for its transparency or mixed with pigment. After being liquefied, it is applied to a surface with any tools the artist wishes to use. Kline does not fuss with complicated apparatuses for application: a brush is his primary aid. As each layer of wax is applied, it may then be reheated to bind it to the previous layer. And so the work begins to grow, and in Kline’s case, acquires relief qualities that make it a distinct hybrid – part painting, part sculpture.
The encaustic technique has its beginnings in ancient Greece and is notably referenced by the historian Pliny in the 1st century. The art of encaustic painting is believed to have its roots in the utilitarian use of wax as a protective coating for weatherproofing ships. As the wax was refined and color pigment added, it began to enter the context of art. Perhaps the best known encaustic works are the Faiyum Mummy Portraits from ancient Egypt that date from around 100-300 A.D. Under Greco-Roman rule, Egypt was home to many Greek settlements, predominantly in the area of Faiyum. The Greek population adopted various customs of the Egyptians, including mummification and “realistically” depicting the deceased as a form of funerary portraiture. A portrait of the deceased was painted in encaustic, either in the prime of the sitter’s life or after death and placed over the person’s mummy as a memorial.Encaustic painting on wood panel was held in high regard for much of the Byzantine and Medieval periods due to its portability and the medium’s potential to carry brilliant color. Encaustic was used in painting religious icons such as those from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt around the 6th and 7th centuries A.D.
By the 12th century, however, encaustic was a lost art. The cost had become too high and the process too painstaking. In the 18th and 19th centuries, encaustic painting was picked up again by artist Carl Rottmann (1797-1850) and archaeologist Anne Claude de Caylus, whose Mémoir (1755) on the method of encaustic painting led to a revival of the ancient technique. By the 20th century, encaustic gained momentum once again, as an alternative to oil and tempera paint and was highly regarded in mural work for its binding qualities and its ability to adhere quickly to surfaces. At its peak in the mid-20thcentury, encaustic became the medium of choice for artist Jasper Johns, who is credited with almost single-handedly modernizing encaustic painting.
While decidedly contemporary for its reinvention of encaustic painting, Kline’s work still retains a connection to the past, one that is present through his choice of the ancient medium, as well as through Kline’s ability to draw on the culture, custom, legend, and ritual of ancient and far-off lands. The recent “Excursion” series is one among many instances in which Kline draws on ancient architecture and non-western craft traditions as inspiration. For instance, Kline’s Aladdin (2009) immediately calls our attention to ancient iconic forms and non-western architecture, in particular to domes and vaults, both distinctive features of Byzantine and Islamic architecture. Here, Kline also pays homage to a legend and the imagined exoticism of the Middle East. First published in the collection of stories, One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin alludes to the Middle Eastern folk tale of a young boy’s journey from rags to riches, as he discovers a magic lamp that brings him wealth and power. Responsible for Aladdin’s wealth is a genie, who is summoned by rubbing the magical lamp. Aladdin is a vaulted image built up of chains of encaustic dots. These dots explode with color as they cascade down, resembling jewels on a string of beads.
Kline’s structures are derived less from actual travel experiences and more from the way that art can conjure a sense of place. Aladdin, like many of Kline’s other “Excursion” works, suggests exotic and far-off locations. Kline’s imagined reality can be seen through his use of color, light, form, and atmosphere. In each of Kline’s works the importance of process is underscored. The slow and repetitive movements that encaustic requires allows the artist to focus closely on the precision of his work. What the viewer sees is a complex pattern of raised surfaces and striking color that evokes a meditative experience that encourages us to look actively at the art at hand and then back inwardly within ourselves.
Have you ever experimented with encaustic painting? Share your own experiences with this unique medium. For additional insights into Martin Kline’s artistic process, join us on Thursday, May 10th for his gallery talk at 6 p.m.