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Waxing Eloquent

Art Review


Published March 9, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT: "The Emotional Landscape," encaustic paintings by Earl C.C. Schofield III. Doll-Anstadt Gallery, Burlington. Through March.

ARTWORK: "Red Marsh Pines"

Earl C.C. Shofield III's show, "The Emotional Landscape," currently at Burlington's Doll-Anstadt Gallery, is made up of 12 paintings that use a 2000-year-old medium. His encaustic works use a wax-based method developed during Hellenistic times in the Roman Empire. Among the earliest surviving encaustics are Egyptian funereal portraits painted on wood, and wall paintings excavated from the ashes of Pompeii. Shofield's paintings are more about life than the afterlife. The zesty surfaces and lively hues of his "emotional landscapes" express more joy than angst -- usually.

From Dublin, New Hampshire, Shofield portrays the world around him with equal measures of abstraction and realism. His artist statement reveals: "I am most drawn to the formal aspects of painting, a sense of order in the composition on which I can impose loose brush work, arbitrary color, unique mark making, drips, tears, scratches, layers of translucent and opaque wax . . . all 'chaotic', expressive tools."

"Red Marsh Pines" demonstrates exactly what Shofield means. Its bright white foreground is essentially an abstract-expressionist field painting, while bushy pines deeper in the picture plane are both "realistic" and rendered in gobs. His red is a brownish-red oxide laid out in staccato vertical brushstrokes.

"Red Marsh III" depicts the same place, but the painting has a higher horizon, with the tree line squeezed into the upper tenth of the canvas. Layers of translucent wax seem to cascade over the foreground.

"Lake View" may be that same watery location in a different season, without red weeds in the pond. Shofield's landscape vistas are all 40 inches square, which is large-scale for encaustic works. He varies spaces in the paintings by adroitly adjusting horizons and brushwork.

"Call's View" presents a more pastoral scene. A country road wends its way up a village hill, just as the maples are beginning to turn scarlet in early autumn. But that's where the sweetness ends. Shofield seems to have slashed lines into the wax and let dirty umber drips creep out of the heavens, adding tension to an otherwise peaceful New England country idyll.

Shofield's four paintings of bugs and a frog are 15-inch-square closeups of creatures that might be found near his neighborhood marshy pond. Rather than just calling the creatures by their names, he adds mythological edges to the titles. Thus the frog work is "Hades/Wood Frog," and the dragonfly is called "Mercury/Dragonfly." The other two biomorphic paintings are "Mars/Big Red Bug" and "Venus/Bumblebee." The mythological add-ons seem a little pretentious, but they do obliquely refer to the Roman roots of encaustic. In any event, the paintings are great despite the curious titles.

"Venus/Bumblebee" captures the bee on a bright lilac blossom amidst a beautiful triadic harmony of green, yellow and mauve. It's a photorealistic depiction, complete with a diffused background and shallow depth of field, as is common in nature photography. Of course, the paint surface is quite uncommon, and the insect works have smooth as well as diffused backgrounds.

Shofield goes to the opposite extreme in his "Black Sun Series." Those two 36-inch-square paintings capture the sun seemingly clawing its way through tangled branches. They are painted in heavy wax impastos, thicker than in any of his other pieces. "Black Sun Series #2" has the sun at left, a yellow-white disk penetrating an orange-and-black forest of leafless trees. "Black Sun Series #1" is a little more subdued: The sun is white with a few rays emanating from it, behind a forest of green leaves and gray tree trunks.

Ancient encaustic painters may have had a slightly tougher job than do modern ones -- contemporary artists have the benefit of premixed commercial recipes, blow dryers, precisely heated spatulas and other blending tools.

Nevertheless, encaustic remains a demanding medium. In Shofield's hands, it's an extremely versatile one.