Master of her medium
New show illuminates Paula Busch’s command of difficult art form
During her several decades of living in Chico, artist Paula Busch has worked in just about every two-dimensional medium that exists, beginning with printmaking and, lately, culminating in the oldest surviving painting medium, encaustic, otherwise known as hot-wax painting.
Busch now qualifies as a master of the medium, in much the same way that another longtime Chico artist, Ann Pierce, is a master of hers, watercolor. Both women seemingly can make their mediums do whatever they want them to do.
The word encaustic comes from the Greek word enkaustikos, which means “to burn in.” In its simplest form, it involves mixing colored pigment with melted beeswax and using the mixture as a kind of paint. It has the advantage of being manipulable after it’s been applied to the painting surface, thus enabling the artist to create a layered, almost 3-D surface texture.
The wax also protects and preserves the pigment, so that paintings retain a rich luminosity over time. And it is moisture-resistant, which makes it extremely durable as long as it’s not exposed to temperatures greater than 180 degrees. Beautifully preserved examples of its use in Egyptian funeral portraiture date from the first century B.C.
Encaustic is a complex medium that for centuries was lost to artists, its use largely abandoned because of the difficulty of heating the wax. The recent development of portable electric heating tools such as hot plates and hot guns has made working with the wax much easier, and the medium has enjoyed a resurgence since the 1990s.
Paula Busch has been working in encaustic for several years now, and her skill with this extremely exacting medium is evident in every painting. Her new exhibit, Wax, Paper, String, now open at 1078 Gallery, offers several dozen recent works, and viewers who examine them closely will quickly see just how commanding her control is.
They may have differing reactions to her images—I certainly like some of them more than others—but they’ll be unanimous in admiring the process that created all of them. A tremendous amount of work went into these pieces. Busch, who’s in her backyard studio every day without fail, said even the smallest paintings took a week to make.
There are three main groups of paintings in this exhibit. The first, called “Funnel Vision,” is made up of variations on the funnel shape in forms suggestive of spirochetes and other one-celled creatures. “Plants and animals, plants and animals,” Busch said. “Everything I do is about plants and animals”—even when those “animals” are single-celled creatures.
The second group, “Moiré,” is a take-off on the kinds of watery and wavelike designs found in certain fabrics, especially silk, while the third group is called “Four Squared” and features a set of 2-foot-square pieces divided into 16 6-inch-square sections, each functioning as a small painting in and of itself. Some feature aerial images, others sectional slices of dried leeks, still others images of small birds. “We’re back to plants and animals,” Busch said.
She uses special pens and brushes to add to the imagery in these pieces. In the “Funnel Vision” series, for example, she uses hundreds of small black curvy lines to create a sense of three-dimensional mass in the funnels. It’s a level of minute detail that boggles the mind.