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  1. Arts & Entertainment

Stop the world and melt with Morean Arts Center encaustic exhibit

Published Apr. 11, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG

If you have never thought about the connection between a box of Crayolas and ancient encaustic paintings, "Wax: Medium Meets Message" at the Morean Arts Center draws the line for you. Nine artists demonstrate the malleability of techniques using a malleable medium.

Tinted, melted wax was used thousands of years ago as we use paint today. But by the seventh century, it was pretty much a lost art, losing ground to the less temperamental, water-based tempera.

More than a thousand years later, encaustic was revived as child's play when colored wax was formed into sticks called crayons. As an art form, it only gained new traction about 50 years ago, most famously when Jasper Johns began using it.

Leslie Neumann, who lives in the Tampa Bay region, has become a well-known encaustic painter, but it isn't a medium you see often in exhibitions. In curating this show, she has assembled works of great diversity.

Neumann's mystical orbs floating in a richly imagined cosmos with layers of wax scraped through to reveal subtle layers are familiar. Kim Bernard's jaunty 3-D orbs of bright wax are not.

Bernard attaches the balls to springs and a bicycle wheel, making them kinetic. Readymade Color Wheel is a nod to Marcel Duchamp's controversial Readymades in the early 20th century in which everyday objects were slightly modified by Duchamp and declared art. Wax balls bobbing around when you spin the "color wheel" (pun intended, I'm sure) and bounce against the wall, leaving little crayon-like marks. It's engaging and is more about an idea than masterful manipulation of the wax you see in other works.

Laura Moriarty creates sculptures from encaustic painted on wood panels. They resemble geological cross-sections with layers, rifts, shifting plates, land masses rising and falling and thick wax like lava flows.

Old photographs are enlarged by Marybeth Rothman and encased in encaustic as if preserving memories, except these are found photos of anonymous people.

Lorrie Fredette's installation is simply beautiful. The Great Silence is composed of little pods made from muslin stretched over a frame and coated in wax. Each is strung from a ceiling grid with nylon threads. You could compare them to a lot of things visually, but the wall text tells us they are an account of the 17th century small pox epidemic that wiped out most of the Cape Cod population. So we can see these perhaps as either a microscopic representation of the virus or the memories and stories associated with the event. That's a bit cerebral, perhaps, but the work stands — or floats — on its own.

This is, above all, an accessible show. The lushness of the wax and the ways it is used provide immediate visual pleasure. You can dig deeper, as the artists often do when they use the wax, to find more levels. You'll find plenty.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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