First, let me confess that in 30 years of writing about art in Maine and New England, I had never visited the Saco Museum in downtown Saco, Maine. My guess is that you haven’t either. If not, you should. In recent years the Saco Museum (known as the York Institute until 2000) has been mounting some superb exhibitions that warrant putting it on your museum trail map.
Currently (through May 30), the Saco Museum is featuring Heat Stroke: New England Wax Artists Working in Encaustic, a wonderfully rich and satisfying exhibition of some 77 works by 25 artists replete with an accompanying didactic display of encaustic history, materials, tools, and techniques. Heat Stroke was produced in collaboration with New England Wax, an affinity group founded in 2006 by Maine encaustic artist Kim Bernard, and was juried by Katherine French, director of the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, Massachusetts, and known champion of the medium.
Encaustic is a beeswax-based painting medium that produces work with appealing depth, density, and texture as artists paint with it in its molten state, embed objects in it, and scrape and carve it once it has hardened. The exhibitions dominant aesthetic is one of chromatic abstraction punctuated by collaged and buried bits of found imagery. Frankly, I was most surprised by what these contemporary artists did not do with wax, which is sculpt it in the vein of the lovely wax flowers displayed as an historical adjunct to the show.
That said, Heat Stroke features artists using a wide variety of techniques to produce works of great diversity with the seductive, translucent medium as the unifying element.
New England Wax founder Kim Bernard of North Berwick shows a series of classically-inspired geometric abstractions that look almost as though they were done in stucco or plaster as well as a handsome, freestanding sculpture of encaustic, plywood, and lead. Both the wall pieces and floor sculpture seem to take their concentric form from Roman hippodromes, places of sport and of healing.
Patricia Gerkin of Greenland, New Hampshire, treats encaustic almost as a medium for the display of artifacts, embedding discrete bits of rusted screen, wire, and hinges in blocks of neutral colored wax.
Gregory Wright of Lowell, Massachusetts, makes bold, fluid organic abstractions that might actually be underwater seaweed beds, dripping and daubing wax.
One of the most unusual and restrained uses of encaustic is by Deborah Kruger of Florence, Massachusetts. She creates festive, feathery wall hangings out of fiber, encaustic, oilstick, paint, waxen line, and in some cases beads. Her works have a tribal, ceremonial look and feel.
My favorite piece in the show was “Snowstorm in July” by Jeanne Griffin of Holliston, Massachusetts. Like several other of the artists, Griffin created a multi-panel piece, hers a grid of twelve panels, each dappled with pink, black, and white encaustic in patterns that suggest various stages and intensities of a natural event, in this case apparently a snowstorm.
In all, there are 11 artists each from Maine and Massachusetts, two from New Hampshire, and one from Connecticut in this thoughtful survey of New England encaustic artists. And in keeping with the Saco Museum’s recent strategy of partnering with arts groups to arrange exhibitions, Heat Stroke will be followed by For Pastel Only (June 5 to June 28), the 10th International Juried Exhibition hosted by Pastel Painters of Maine.
As a small regional museum with a focused mission to promote and present the fine and decorative arts, the Saco Museum would be hard to beat.
[Saco Museum, 371 Main St., Saco ME, 207-283-3861.]