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Uncovering the layers of wax-based painting

“Time Piece,” from Karl Zerbe, one of the original Boston Expressionists.

Tim Phillips

“Time Piece,” from Karl Zerbe, one of the original Boston Expressionists.

“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.

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Zerbe’s “Time Piece” (1940) is fraught and surreal — he was one of the original Boston Expressionists, many of whom poured their neuroses into their work. In it, the space skews to feel claustrophobic. A candelabra has no candles, a dark skeleton evokes death, and a clock thrusts into the foreground, its pendulum glaring yellow and green. Given what was going on in Europe at the time it was made, no wonder the painting reads like a time bomb.

What of the 21st century? The exhibit is largely juried, but includes a handful of invited artists, totaling 37. Some move intriguingly into the sculptural realm — such as Cari Hernandez, with her wax-coated books in “An unfolding relationship,” the pages rolled, or stilled in midair. But “The Future of the Past” feels more 20th century than 21st. The art here does not prod at the edges of painting’s meaning, nor does it strive for conceptual rigor. The work may be beautifully made, but it’s often merely that — gauzy, pretty, embodying the haze of memory — but not particularly revelatory or, like Zerbe’s “Time Piece,” challenging.

There are exceptions. Zane Turner’s “What do you mean it’s going to crumble” is an in-your-face portrait of a frantic man, his skin painted over in yellow and turquoise. Nan Tull’s refreshingly abstract “Night Vision 3” is bold, gritty, and black and white, with jagged diagonals colliding. James Meyer’s “The Path of Thought,” in which a loosely sketched artist draws over a canvas that is the night sky, presents in both its narrative and its execution a satisfying Mobius strip of a question: Which is the creator, and which the created? But there are too few meaty works such as these, and too many in which the artists are more captivated by their medium than their message.

Nan Tull’s abstract “Night Vision 3.”

Nan Tull

Nan Tull’s abstract “Night Vision 3.”

Performance art primer

“Insider/Outsider,” an exhibit at Lincoln Arts Project of documentation and traces left behind by performance artists, is a wonderful primer in performance art, which — let’s face it — is perplexing to many. The show is curated by artist Sandrine Schaefer, a founder of The Present Tense, a local performance art group. These pieces take place in public or in the private sphere, where the heightened metaphors of art and ritual collide with the real world.

For instance, Joanne Rice enacted “The Human Cost of War” every day for two years from 2007 to 2009, as she took a box of 100 stones to a site outside Trinity Church in Boston, and contemplatively deposited them, one by one, in a growing pile. Each stone represented a life lost in war. She may not have commanded an audience, but over time, people in the area became inadvertent witnesses.

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Jeffrey Byrd’s “Public Art” project actively investigated the lack of an audience. In various cities around the world, he left a small sheet of gold leaf. If it blew away, he followed it with his video camera. The idea that art is out there, hidden and waiting to be discovered, is sweet.

Chun Hua Catherine Dong, in “The Husbands and I,” daringly advertised herself as a mail-order bride for a day, and videotaped the cozy and intimate interactions she had in the homes of the strangers who responded. Here, the dissonance between art and reality is especially provocative. I found myself worrying for her safety. Yet the high stakes make the work that much juicier.

A good yarn

Meanwhile, inside the walls of Kingston Gallery, Janet Kawada is doing a monthlong performance, as she sits in an easy chair behind a mass of stray yarn, winding it into a ball. When I was there Nov. 9, the ball was the size of a lobster pot, a maze of blue and white crisscrossing strands. More balls, which Kawada has been winding for years, sat on the floor, on a table, on shelves, looking playful and bright. She has a chair for visitors, who can make balls to take home. It’s warmly inviting, drawing the visitor away from distractions and into the present moment, into quiet, or conversation with the artist. It’s a reminder that the more distracted we are, the lonelier we’re likely to be. Sometimes it’s best to just sit and be, with another person.

THE FUTURE OF THE PAST: Encaustic Art in the 21st Century  

At: Mills Gallery, Boston Center

for the Arts, 551 Tremont St.,

through Dec. 2. 617-426-1522, www.bcaonline.org

Insider/Outsider  

At: Lincoln Arts Project,

289 Moody St., Waltham,

through Dec. 1. (No phone), www.lincolnartsproject.com

JANET KAWADA: Shift in Time  

At: Kingston Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave., through Dec. 2. 617-423-4113, www.kingstongallery.com

Cate McQuaid can be reached at cate
mcquaid@gmail.com.

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