Wax poetic about community and art

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“Everything meaningful in my adult life came from the relationship with this material,” explains artist Michael David, referring to encaustic – a painting material made of wax, damar varnish and pigment. David will discuss his art and life as this year’s keynote speaker at the 15th International Encaustic Conference, hosted by the Truro Center for the Arts in Castle Hill.

Portrait of Michael David at Castle Hill. (Photo by Agata Storer)

Known for its physiognomy and versatility, encaustic painting dates back to Fayum mummy portraits – startlingly realistic paintings created in ancient Egypt – and extends to more contemporary examples such as encaustic paintings. well-known designs by Jasper Johns depicting targets and American flags. The conference, held at the Provincetown Inn from June 3-5, brings together more than 150 artists to network and learn more about the technique.

David worked with six artists in a two-week residency at Castle Hill. He began using encaustic as a student at Parsons in the 1970s, a time when he also found inspiration in New York’s first-generation punk scene, occasionally playing bass for the first band. punk The Plasmatics. Quoting Iggy Pop, David describes this stay in New York as “dangerous, dirty, horrible and incredible”.

A recent work by Michael David created from broken mirrors: A Day in the Life, mirror and resin on wood, 96 by 96 inches, 2022. (Photo courtesy Michael David)

“I was young and very strong and fast and kind of aggressive and angry, and polish was so physical,” he says. “My experience with it was like being on stage. I could dig, I could cut out, I could quote meaning, I could go back and forth. Oil painting was too slow for me.

David was quickly noticed by the art world with his early paintings of symbols created on wooden surfaces cut into the shapes of crosses, swastikas and stars. The legacy of punk and abstract expressionism is evident in his work. However, these works also relate to a discourse on minimalism – popular in 1970s New York – emphasizing paintings as objects. His paintings of monochromatic symbols are as simple as they are explosive, which he compares to the “three-chord” punk songs of the time.

Encaustic painting materials. (Photo by Agata Storer)

David has never been more purist than minimalist; instead, it shifted to narrative and juicy subject matter. “My abstraction was never purely abstract,” he says. “I was always aware of the things that were going on socially around me. The crosses were about the history of Italian painting, Suprematism, Christianity and kind of a punk statement – ​​a hybrid of all of those things.

Eventually, he began to temper his provocative energy, abandoning the image of the swastika. “As a Jew, I knew there was a lot of history surrounding it,” he says. “In a way I was doing it to stir up controversy and be seen and ultimately I decided it was my responsibility not to exploit it.”

Throughout his career, David has returned to the symbol of the Golem, a creature from Jewish folklore, which he says “is this notion that when man puts himself before God and becomes too creative, he becomes self-destructive. “. He had his own Golem experience in 1999 when he overheated wax, which should never be hotter than 180 degrees, and poured in damar varnish, creating a toxic chemical reaction paralyzing him from the waist down. He still only has partial use of his legs. “I was so cocky; nobody could tell me to do anything,” he says of his disregard for security. “I had made myself sick with the thing I love to do the most.”

A painting from Michael David’s “Chortens” series: Population With Blues & Pinks, oil and wax on wood, 30 x 26 x 12 inches, 2006. (Photo courtesy Bill Lowe Gallery)

While recovering, David found solace in Buddhism and teaching. He moved to Atlanta and refocused his life. He started reading about “self-compassion” and started doing a series of “Chorten” paintings – mound-shaped objects referencing Buddhist monuments. The surface of these works appear as protruding diseased masses, encrusted with wax and pigment.

“When I was young, I was given so much so I wasn’t very observant,” he says. “I didn’t believe at all that I needed a community.” When he started teaching in Atlanta, “this whole community formed around me.” More recently, during the pandemic, he launched the online Yellow Chair Salon in partnership with Castle Hill.

David is now working through Castle Hill with participants both physically in Truro and streaming on Zoom calls. “The collaborative wisdom of the group is very meaningful to me,” says Ellen Anthony of Truro, a current participant. Anthony focused less on producing work and more on “listening in when nothing works”.

“All the work was inside,” says Anthony. David’s teaching is centered on personal reflection. “Look at yourself and why you do what you do and how it relates to you,” he says. “Most people are so preoccupied with formality that they lose touch with themselves.”

Edith Beatty applies a coat of wax to a panel. (Photo by Agata Storer)

In the eaves of an old building on Castle Hill’s Edgewood Farm, Edith Beatty “gets lost in materiality,” she says. Its space smells of melted wax, and large expanses of handmade paper hang from the walls, dyed with natural materials such as walnut ink, turmeric, and red onion. A multi-paneled piece is reminiscent of Asian art in its clean simplicity: a single ink brush stroke across a board covered in layers of encaustic. “I love the sense of translucency and depth” in encaustic, says Beatty.

Later in the day, the group meets for a Zoom conference with Rosemarie Langry, an encaustic artist from central Ireland. Largely inspired by the colors and materiality of Irish bogs, Langry’s work reveals the versatility of encaustic. She uses her techniques to incorporate flowers into her work, layer photographs and coat wooden sculptures. The ensuing discussion opens up lines of conversation between participants in a way that is productive for all artists.

“When I’m not in the studio, my days are filled with other people working, and so it becomes this energy that comes and goes,” David explains. “It makes me verify what I truly believe.”

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