Complex Ecosystems

Complex Ecosystems from a Curatorial Point of View

We observe in the work of Theresa Burkes and Connie Wood two seemingly dissimilar
reactions to environmental change, our human measure in that change, and the medium of
encaustic to provoke dialogue. On the one hand, Burkes’ abstract works offer us existential
places to ask questions about our connection to natural phenomena. Working in the
tradition of the Abstract Expressionists, Burkes opens up a personal and subjective space for
us to follow her into.
On the other hand, Wood’s humorous, Aesopian figures allow us to question our
understanding of the impact we have on our landscape, in which we are not sole residents.
The juxtaposition of traditional portraiture and a hare is a surprising one, and the humorous
take is akin to the ancient Greek perspective of Plautus, in which his Calidorus jokes about
seeing himself “in the wax.”
Our exhibiting artists are not alone in this inquiry. Encaustic has been used as an artistic
medium throughout ancient and modern global history as a dynamic mediator of artists’
observations and our participatory responses. Ancient Greeks decorated hulls of ships with
vibrant, encaustic patterns, including eyes at the bow. Functionally, this served to waterproof
a water-borne vessel; it also transformed the bulk into a metaphorical sentient being
navigating open waters. Roman Fayum Egyptians painted encaustic portraits on the exteriors
of mummies. This allowed the visage of the dead to be known in the afterlife; it also made
the wrapped linens appear to take on human features once again. Burkes and Wood also
bring to life a relationship with landscape often forgotten in our daily, mundane routines.
Many contemporary encaustic artists work in small dimensions as the technique of working
with wax requires hot temperatures of melted wax that can cool quickly. But some artists,
like the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, defied those limiting sizes. Rivera completed
Creation, an encaustic mural of 1,000 square feet, in 1922 at San Ildefonzo College in Mexico
City. It, too, examined our human connection to nature. Burkes and Wood continue this
ambitious tradition.

CONSERVATOR’S NOTE: Beeswax is often the binder for pigment to a surface. It can
provide surprising results: an almost glass-like sheen or a sculptural, relief texture. The gloss
startles us as we expect a more matte and waxy texture. The relief is dimensional enough to
tempt us to reach out and touch the material. We must refrain, though, as the medium is
sensitive enough to adopt the prints of our fingers, changing the work entirely.


Anreus, Alejandro, Leonard Folgarait, and Robin Ad le Greeley. (Eds). (2012). Mexican Muralism: A Critical History. Los Angeles:
University of California Press.
Carlson, Deborah N. (Jul.-Sept., 2009). Seeing the Sea: Ships’ Eyes in Classical Greece. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of
Classical Studies at Athens. 78(3), 347-365.
Cooney, John D. (Feb., 1972). Portraits from Roman Egypt. The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 59(2), 51-55.
O’Bryhim, Shawn. (2010). Phoenicium in the Wax (Pl. Ps. 20-37). Mnemosyne. Fourth Series, 63(4). 635-639.

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