Waxy Revelations

I recently underwent one of those rare religious art experiences that give rise to an enlightened conscience and an overall sense of greater awareness and higher being.

Ann Hamilton’s “Palimpsest,” now on display at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden as part of the exhibition Over, Under, Next, is an extraordinarily emotive installation that provokes personal responses to visual, olfactory, auditory, and tactile sensations.  

The visitor must first slip on the necessary footwear. Cotton soles serve a dual purpose of protecting the sacred beeswax floor from the dirtiness of the profane world, while also signifying to the visitor that he will cross an important threshold, transforming the museum-goer from art viewer to work participant.

Once inside, the viewer finds himself surrounded by notes, handwritten with pencil on yellowed newsprint. Filling all four walls from floor to ceiling, the random notes and simple reminders are each pinned at the center with a thumbtack. A fan rests above the open entranceway, causing a gentle ripple of paper that is just slightly audible and seems to engulf the viewer in its intimate embrace. The effect is euphoric as the written words obtain a physicality that lifts them directly off their flimsy pages.

The biomorphic room contains a vitrine with two large, bright green heads of cabbage, and a number of brown snails that snake across the glass, leaving their slimy secretions behind as they slowly consume the vegetables.

Witnessing this event, the viewer feels as if he has transported in time, existing in a primordial world. Where memory should be created, it is dissolved—devoured—in the present reality.

“Palimpsest” is not the only recent installation to feature wax in Washington, DC. The much talked about “Laib Wax Room” opened as a permanent installation at the Phillips Collection in March.

Unlike “Palimpsest,” German artist Wolfgang Laib’s installation contains only wax and a single, unadorned light bulb that hangs from the ceiling, illuminating the amber-colored walls. While Hamilton’s space is cool, almost chilling, Laib’s room is slightly warmer than the rest of the museum and at a smaller scale, succeeds at communicating a cavernous impression.  The effect is enhanced when considering the intense silence one experiences standing alone.

First used by ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artists, wax enjoys an important place in the history of art methods and materials. Made from animal, vegetable and mineral sources, the medium is most well-known in the form of Byzantine icons that reveal captivatingly bright colors, and life-like anatomical models and volatile offerings, popular in Florence from the 13th through the 17th centuries.[i]

Though the medium decreased in popularity with the rise of oil painting in the late Renaissance and early modern era, the complexity of encaustic maintained a sense of respected reverence as an ancient and classic style, especially among American and European painters during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Wax would experience a revival when Jackson Pollock, Alfonso Ossorio, and other Abstract Expressionists first experimented with the medium and its elastic and highly textural properties during the mid-20th century. Soon after, Jasper Johns would exhibit “Flag” at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, thrusting encaustic back into the realm of artistic prominence.[ii]

Wax jumped off the page in the 1970s when German-artist Joseph Beuys became interested in the “living process at work, in which the process of warmth and heat are involved” in the creation of beeswax. Beuys used the medium to create large-scale objects out of the material with the goal of linking the individual viewer to the whole nature of the physical substance and its place in the greater atmosphere.[iii]

Today, a collective of six Washington-based artists manipulate and experiment with hot wax in order to push the boundaries of the ancient medium. In the Washington Wax Works debut exhibition at Gateway Arts Center, Waxy Buildup, now on display until June 22, documentary filmmaker David Evans fuses wax with paper, paint, embedded artifacts and photographs, in order to communicate non-linear stories that encourage the viewer to insert himself into the visual narrative. Katie Dell Kaufman and Marty Ittner each create striking encaustic collages that reference Robert Rauschenberg’s combines with their large stock letters and strips of newspaper.

A remarkable material with a history as rich as its faculties, wax is an enchanting medium that will continue to challenge artists and confound viewers. Whether painted with on paper, propelled through the air to create a sculpture, or ladled on walls, wax is a medium that ArtSee will be sure to watch as artists in DC and beyond explore and expand the elastic substance.

Bringing the Art in DC to You,
Roxanne Goldberg


[i] Roberta Ballestriero, “Anatomical Models and Wax Venuses: Art Masterpieces of Scientific Craft Works?,” Journal of Anatomy 216, no. 2 (Feb., 2010): 223- 234.
[ii] Kristen Gallagher, “Discoveries in Encaustic: A Look through History,” Explorations 6 (2011) : 73- 84.
[iii] Joseph Beuys, What is Art? Translated by Matthew Barton and Shelley Sacks (Stuttgart: Clairview Books, 2004).