“The Future of the Past: Encaustic Art in the 21st Century,” an expansive show at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery, stands on a firm foundation. Curators Barb Cone and Harriet Chenkin reach back to mid-20th-century Boston as a seminal moment in the US for encaustic — that is, painting with pigmented wax. Encaustic has been around for two millennia, and artists continue to explore its possibilities. Wax can be layered, fused, chiseled, and otherwise manipulated.
Karl Zerbe, the legendary head of the painting department at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, began investigating the medium after he emigrated from Germany, in the late 1930s. Two of his students who went on to notable careers, David Aronson and Esther Geller, have also worked with wax for decades. Encaustic paintings by each of these artists root the exhibit.