Artists Wax Eloquent in an Ancient Medium

Lorraine Glessner's
Lorraine Glessner's "Nexus 1-XX," part of "The Divas and Iron Chefs of Encaustic" show, mixes wax with fabric and printed material. (Mclean Project For The Arts)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

Mention hot wax these days, and you're far more likely to conjure up thoughts of hair removal than of fine art. This despite the fact that painting with encaustic (the fancy name for melted wax pigment) has been around since the days of the mummies.

Those curious to see how far the medium has come should head to the McLean Project for the Arts, where a pair of contemporary encaustic exhibitions (one technical, one conceptual) offer a lively primer on the ancient but still vital art form.

Why wax? According to Reni Gower, curator of "The Divas and Iron Chefs of Encaustic," the answer is simple: "Seductive surface, luminous color and ethereal image layering."

And how. None of the show's eight artists better embody those three qualities than Lorraine Glessner, whose 20-panel installation of wax and mixed media hangs just inside the entrance to the McLean Project for the Arts Emerson Gallery. Called "Nexus 1-XX," it's practically the first thing you see, and it's a showstopper.

Collaging scraps of fabric and printed material in a repeating-circle motif beneath layers of cream-colored wax, the Philadelphia-based artist's work takes full advantage of the medium's ability to tease the eye, simultaneously revealing and concealing information. One minute, it evokes a leaf-strewn pond, disturbed by gently falling rain. The next, a microscope's view of cellular biology. Now, it's a map of the cosmos. You can get lost staring into her surface's deceptively shallow skin.

Equally evocative is the work of Heather Harvey. Some of it, anyway.

A recent master of fine arts graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, the young artist is represented at McLean by examples from two divergent bodies of work. As their names suggest, "Spilled Painting #3 (Green Apple)" and "Spilled Painting #5 (Pink)" look like puddles of liquid. Imagine candles left in the sun too long, then hardened and nailed to the wall. Their colors run in every direction.

They're also a bit of a one-note joke, in the tongue-in-cheek way they wink at the colorfield movement of the 1960s without significantly adding to it.

A separate trio of Harvey's paintings is far more complex. These plaster, wax and fiberglass works draw most of their inspiration, not to mention strength, from pure color. Yet it's their evocation of something not just liquid but suffused with light that makes these paintings succeed. It's not for nothing that one's called "Sky Pour."

Last but not least, don't leave the McLean Project for the Arts without checking out "Four Months: Paintings by Deena Feigelson Margolis." In the art center's Atrium Gallery, the conceptual installation by the Baltimore encaustic painter makes an essential companion piece to "The Divas and Iron Chefs of Encaustic," adding a cerebral element to the undeniable sensuality of wax.

It's a calendar of sorts, featuring one wax painting a day from four months last year: March, April, May and June. Some spaces where there should be a painting are left empty, casualties of the artist's busy schedule. She's a mother of three children, 10, 13 and 17. Other days, when Margolis was able to make it to the studio but came up dry, she simply says so. "I have absolutely zero desire to produce any work," reads one diaristic entry, etched into the soft wax under the heading "Fri. night 3/9/07."

For Margolis, the advantages of working in wax are retinal and intellectual. Her paintings aren't just richly visual; they're also an effective way of making the point that time piles up like unpaid bills.

Bits of newspapers, calendar pages and other ephemera lie embedded in her wax, like a scrapbook. But her art is also a form of natural history, metaphorical insects frozen in amber.

The Divas and Iron Chefs of Encaustic Four Months: Paintings by Deena Feigelson Margolis Through June 7 at the McLean Project for the Arts, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean Info:703-790-1953. Hours: Open Tuesday-Friday 10 to 4; Saturdays 1 to 5. Admission: Free. Program: On May 31 from 10 to 1, curator Reni Gower will present a slide lecture and demonstration on the history and contemporary use of the encaustic technique. $10. For reservations, call 703-790-1953 or e-mail

© 2008 The Washington Post Company