April 12, 2008

The Media is the Message

"I want to use wax crayons in my paintings but am not sure how. I was told that I couldn’t do that." One of my students asked me this at our last meeting. I assured her that there really is no such thing as a wrong or right media, only compatible or incompatible ways of using substances. So I thought of a way that wax crayons might work with oil paint and set about to experiment on some panels with my student. I mixed the tube paint with a combination beeswax and damar varnish medium and used a palette knife to trowel this heavy-bodied pigment onto the panel. I then broke off pieces of wax crayons and dropped them into the paint.
"We’ll heat up the paint with a hair drier set on high heat and see if the beeswax in the paint melts with the crayon so that it adheres." I said as I ran upstairs to get a high powered salon-style blow drier that I recently inherited from my step-mother. When I got back down to the studio, I enthusiastically set it on high speed and blew a good many of the wax crayons off the panel. So by trial and error we discovered that the blow drier had to be set on low initially to slowly soften the wax so that it would have a tack to it before melting it into the beeswax-laden paint. The tiny silver, red and green dots of crayon fragments melded nicely into the pigments and we discovered a new way of making what I would like to call faux encaustic. I then sent my student on her way with a dollop of the beeswax and damar.
Afterwards I was confronted with this little demonstrator faux encaustic painting that I wasn’t quite certain what to do with. I then remembered a multi-media mosaic and painting that I had done with pigment and glass some time ago and sought to recreate this effect. I became interested in combining somewhat disparate media after seeing the work of Michigan artist Ellen Stern a number of years ago in an exhibition in Miami. Her painting "Jack" began as an embroidery of a fairy tale, the threads of silk slowly dissolving into paint which then became glass and tile. It struck me as an allegory of a tale retold several times in translation - the same story repeated in a different media, altering the story slightly with each retelling as the various permutations of media reinterpret the narrative. Even more captivating was the subject of this particular narrative being about a vine that grows uncontrollably - like stories running rampant across borders. There was something else that was bold about this simple statement - especially since in contemporary art we rather arbitrarily assign art to "fine art" or "craft" depending upon what is used rather than how it is used. I think Ellen’s piece was a challenge to the notion that what is used in an art work is more important in understanding how to interpret it than what it says.
To try to capture some of the essence of what Ellen was communicating in her multi-media narrative, I decided to compose an art work traveling through three different media: oil and wax, ceramic shards, and glass. It first required fetching a narrow strip of prepared substrate out of my garbage pail and cutting it to match the height of the first beeswax painting. I glued the small painting and its companion column onto a substrate prepared with sizing. After they dried I proceeded to add bits of a broken ceramic vessel to the outside and inside of the painting - it was a tacky little Easter thing I found on the side of the road but it yielded some interesting texture to the work. Then I reinterpreted the colors and patterns of the painting in glass around the outside boundaries. This completed, I then returned to the column and reinterpreted the surrounding glass in oil and beeswax. I call the piece "Media Narrative in Translation I"

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