Little Dots of Hot Wax: Eileen Goldenberg’s Encaustic Paintings
By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2008. All Rights Reserved
Eileen Goldenberg, Tea House #241, 2008, encaustic on wood, 24×48 (photo courtesy of the artist).
Recently I went to Eileen Goldenberg’s studio to look at more of her work. Eileen has been making encaustics for about eight years, but I only first saw a few pieces from her Tea House series in a SF gallery last year. That work immediately struck me as different from a lot of other encaustic work I’d seen in that it celebrated encaustic as a medium different from paint, rather than a simulation of paint. In fact, during my visit, Eileen mentioned that at a distance a lot of people mistake the pieces for ceramic. A different sort of problem perhaps and ironic as well, because Eileen is also a ceramicist.
Wax as a medium for pigment carries at least one additional complexity over oil or acrylic—it is applied molten and cools almost immediately. Part of the mastery of the medium is learning how to control the molten liquid to get the color where you want it. I had tried encaustic on my own after reading Joanne Mattera‘s useful and beautifully illustrated book on the subject, as well as querying my husband’s cousin (also an encaustic painter and happens to be in Mattera’s book) ad nauseum. Written instructions only go so far, however; there are just some things you have to see for yourself. I was eager to talk with Eileen about how she “does her dots.”
Eileen starts by applying the dots, sometimes tens of thousands of them. She likes the meditative state induced by this repetitive act. Though the act of making them is the same, the dots are not. Eileen talks about them as if they were living things—all part of the same “species,” but each individually varied.
The dots become the matrix on which the rest of the piece is built. Eileen then adds multiple layers of beeswax (tempered with Damar vanish, made from tree resin), sometimes in expansive color fields and other times in general shapes. These days, pseudo buildings defined by thin red lines have begun to emerge from the mists of color—according to Eileen, safe havens in the sometimes overwhelmingly-chaotic urban life. She carves back the surface to a level plane, in the process revealing the underlying layers of color. Within the structure of dots then is serendipity; to some degree when she begins scraping away, Eileen takes her chances on what will be revealed.
Finally, she polishes the surface to a smooth and shiny finish. Unlike a lot of shiny surfaces, Eileen’s do not repel. On the contrary, they beg to be touched. Running your fingers down the surface (do ask first!) is almost shamanistic—you imagine the action of your finger on the ever-so-slightly raised ridges of those dots will release a primitive power. (When you buy a piece, Eileen will provide you with a nice chamois polishing cloth, so I say stroke away!) Over the past several years she has been working with a consistent color palette—ochres and oranges, vermillion/cochineal red, and white, lots of white—altogether pleasing, perhaps because it unconsciously echos our human origins.
The dots and earth colors will tempt you to compare Eileen’s work with the work of the central desert Australian Aboriginies. However, the complicated subject matter of dreamtime and songline visually depicted in Aboriginal paintings is necessarily absent in Western art. Still, I can’t help wondering whether Eileen’s encaustics harbor their own (urban) dreamtime visions.
For an excellent and manageable list of resources on encaustic, see Serena Fenton’s Encaustic painting (or layering with wax!).