March 4, 2010

Encaustic artist Sandra Quinn waxes poetic

DANIEL KANY

— By

After the art market bubble popped in the late 1980s, painters across America sensed that collectors wanted more of a contract of understanding with them. Their response was to concentrate on making objects that revealed craftsmanship, skill and effort rather than images that simply echoed their intellect.

As a result, more and more artists began switching from canvases to panels so they could work flat and build up complex surfaces. As well, they began expanding their range of mediums to keep craftsmanship up front and center. Suddenly, artists who had been working in oil were using mediums like casein, tempera, acrylic glazing compounds and encaustic.

Sandra Quinn's 26 encaustic paintings currently on view at Greenhut Galleries in Portland comprise an excellent illustration of this quiet national movement. Her paintings define the use of encaustic broadly, and reveal a deep understanding of art history by respectfully referencing works by a wide set of American abstract painters.

Encaustic painting was invented by the Greeks about 2,000 years ago. It has hardly changed: it was then and is still essentially 85 percent beeswax and 15 percent resin. Encaustic is compatible with oil paints and is a good match with collage.

Quinn uses oil, collage and graphite in her encaustic paintings. Her painting ''Journey'' is one in which the technical range and content are both clear and well-executed. The painting features black marks on a white field. The references to writing are clear through the calligraphic strokes in black oil, the scratchy marks of graphite and the way the white plays the role of a page. Quinn also uses less saturated grays in layers below the surface. The effect is akin to atmospheric perspective, but with a historical whisper of layers of culture built on each other and faded through time.

I was disappointed by the 2007 encaustic show co-hosted by Greenhut and the June Fitzpatrick Gallery: Too many of the works had an art student flair to them that made them seem more like ''look -- encaustic!'' than mature paintings by mature artists.

When I first glanced over this body of Quinn's work, her broad take on compositional strategies that overtly reference American Modernists such as Mark Tobey, Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin made me nervous. But I was soon reassured by the paintings themselves. Quinn's sensibilities are sophisticated, and these paintings are refined.

While most works in the show are very handsome, a few fail on their own terms. This is OK, because it reveals Quinn isn't playing by some sure-fire formula. ''Tangled Up'' is like a hungover Jackson Pollack by the pool, and the angry red ''Mere'' displays a few too many unresolved issues.

Several paintings, however, stand out as particularly strong and authentic inventions. ''Harmony'' moves past the more static grids of the ''Step by Step'' series to achieve a flowing sense of Modernist structure and depth. ''Joy'' lives up to its name. ''Linked'' and ''Gatekeeper #2'' reveal the artist's mastery of matching structure to scale and mark making. And the pair of ''Revealing'' paintings achieves a delicious seesaw between positive and negative space while subtly referencing Franz Kline and Willem DeKooning's ''Attic'' paintings.

With 26 paintings in Greenhut's feature gallery, including one work of 12 panels, the show is dense -- probably too dense. Don't let that push you back from the works. Quinn's compositions are often strong enough to hold you at arm's length, but do yourself a favor and give some of these works a close look. They hold up very well to intimate scrutiny.

A COMPANION DISPLAY

Another treat currently on view at Greenhut is a widely varied body of works by David Driskell. Driskell's prints are the subject of a major traveling exhibition that just opened at the Portland Museum of Art.

At Greenhut, however, there are not only five prints from the exhibition, but several others that are not in the show: a portfolio -- ''Doorway'' -- that was masterfully published by Howard Greenberg in Thomaston, and a small but exquisitely varied group of paintings that includes works in oil, encaustic, gouache and tempera.

If you are planning to see the show of Driskell's prints at the museum, I strongly advise you to first get a taste for his paintings over at Greenhut.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at

dankany@gmail.com

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