Presently Observed: Recent Work in Wax and Pigment, heralds Janet Bruce's foray into the world of encaustic and printmaking. A painter of great sensitivity and strength, Bruce has embraced a more physical approach, effectively rolling up her sleeves—tracing, transferring, pouring, layering, scraping and inscribing—pushing her work in new directions and neatly catapulting it to a whole new level of potency.
It was at two printmaking workshops in Upstate New York: the Women’s Studio Workshop in Rosendale and R & F pigments, where Bruce learned how to make trace and photo-litho monotypes and how to combine them with encaustic techniques of layering, inscribing, transfers and collage. Trace monotypes are reverse drawings using an inked plate, which can be printed as a positive or a negative (the ghost). Photo litho monotypes use Xerox images as the plate for oil based printmaking. An ancient medium, used by the Egyptians, encaustic, which is made from beeswax, can be translucent and lush in color. Says Bruce:
"I'm drawn to encaustic because of its rich hues and immediacy. Unlike oil painting, there is not a long drying time so it is easier to build up layers and drawing. Also, the possibilities for combining media are limitless. Often there are surprises along the way that open up new ideas for creativity."
In her oil paintings, Bruce composes her surfaces with layers of different colored paint. One of the great pleasures of her work is spotting the various coats of under painting peeking through subsequent applications. These flickers of color add visual and spatial dimension. Bruce also uses wonderfully expressive marks and scumbling to keep things interesting. Jagged lines, rendered in oil stick, temper the sweetness of the palette and the delicate, almost feminine quality of the veils of pigment. Yet, despite all the surface details, paint is thinly applied and the oil paintings have a sleek smoothness about them. With the addition of wax, collage and found objects, Bruce has introduced texture and three-dimensionality in her recent work.
Pyrenees is a large painting with, as the title suggests, a landscape feel. There appears to be a horizon line with great yellow sun above, but much of the painting is abstract. Bruce is inspired by nature, but her interpretations, focusing on the sentiments inherent in it, are non-literal, or as the brilliant German artist, Gerhard Richter, would say, incomprehensible:
“Painting is the making of an analogy for something non-visual and incomprehensible–giving it form and bringing it within reach. And that is why good paintings are incomprehensible. Creating the incomprehensible has absolutely nothing to do with turning out any old bunkum, because bunkum is always comprehensible.”
With its roiling blotches of color and liberal use of oil stick, Pyrenees seems charged with violent energies—of weather, of emotion, or both. For an instant, it teeters on the edge of total chaos, but Bruce maintains control. The effect is thrilling and a little disconcerting—in a good way—feeling slightly anxious at first, one becomes filled with admiration because the composition, with flying colors, succeeds.
Similar to Pyrenees, Approach is smaller and more purely abstract. A patchwork of inspired color combinations, the painting is overlaid with wildly zinging lines. There’s a lot going on in this dynamic work, but you don’t question Bruce’s choices, which are exactly right.
Another large painting, Mother, appears at first to be a quieter work on account of its cool palette of blues and beige with orange highlights. But the brushwork is complex, gestural and also subtle. Bruce says she was thinking of Louise Bourgeois’s Maman, a giant bronze sculpture of a spider, when she was working on this piece. As she explains:
“This painting was started in 2004. In the intervening years I had revisited a particular shape that showed up again and again, in various drawings—a shape based on a Yoshitoshi print of a bereft lunatic women reading and re-reading a scroll-like letter to her dead lover, a letter he presumably never saw that is also a letter from him. Initially, here, the shape, simplified into this oval with tendrils looked kind of camelia-like, or maybe something else….The leggy lines seemed spidery. I remembered "Maman,” which I knew from the Cafritz Garden at the National Gallery where my daughter and I went ice-skating once, memorably, (and I would guess she thought then, that I was more like the Bourgeois Maman, as I tried to keep her upright on the slippery blades….) Yet, this oval seemed less treacherous than that colossal Bourgeois bronze. Anyway, to my eye, now, it reads either as a cozily blanketed baby, or else like a protective thing—a hooded cape. To me, both are maternal images, but there is also a calm about this piece, which gave me pause before; somewhat reminiscent of a deep bath in the maternal. So to get to the point, when I came upon this realization—it was that moment of awakening you get in creative work...I figured that there was nothing more for me to do but allow this "Mother" to remain in this state of finish and wonder.”
Much smaller, but still packing a punch, the Forest series of three paintings marries a hefty schmear of metallic copper encaustic slathered across a simply gorgeous tapestry of pigment. It’s an audacious pairing of strength and softness.
In Bubbles and Clouds, encaustic is applied liberally over a trace monotype. The heavy wax impasto is almost sculptural, creating a pitted, blistered and iced surface of intermittent translucency through which we can discern the lines and pigment of the monotype beneath. It’s a visually arresting and marvelously tactile piece with a presence that belies its small size.
Bruce has created a series of small works that prove she is adept operating in a broad range of media and sizes. With these, she tries just about anything, using such found objects as a dried cabbage leaf, a mock orange and two bits of twisted wire to create compositions that are both curious and striking. They could have ended up looking like a mish-mash, but in the sure-footed Bruce’s hands, these pieces have real artistic authority.
Presently Observed: Recent Work in Wax and Pigment, comprises engaging works that challenge and which seem to suggest all bets are off and anything can happen in Bruce’s paintings. While they take nature as their starting point, they quickly veer off into a profound exploration of pure painting and technique. For Gerhard Richter (and for me) this is a good thing:
"Thus paintings are all the better, the more beautiful, intelligent, crazy and extreme and more clearly perceptible and the less they are decipherable metaphors for this incomprehensible reality."