An Interview with Artist Joanne Mattera

September, 2005

Joanne Mattera has been painting for 30 years. Reviewing Mattera’s work in the March 2000 issue of Art in America, critic Jerry Cullum praised her as “a particularly adept representative of poetic intelligence.” She exhibits regularly throughout the United States. In New York City, she has shown with the Stephen Haller Gallery, the Heidi Cho Gallery, the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Margaret Thatcher Projects, and with OK Harris, where her 20th career solo, and second solo show with the gallery, will take place in 2007. She is represented in Atlanta, GA by the Marcia Wood Gallery, in Boston, MA by the Arden Gallery, and in Larchmont, New York, by Kenise Barnes Fine Art. A nationally acknowledged master of encaustic, she is the author of The Art of Encaustic Painting: Contemporary Expression in the Ancient Medium of Pigmented Wax, which has become the standard reference on the subject. Her work is in the collections of the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey; Library Collections of the State University of New York, Albany; Wheaton College Art Museum, Norton, Massachusetts; and has been exhibited in the U.S. embassies of Brunei, Poland and Slovenia. Mattera has a BFA in Painting from Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, and an MA in Visual Arts from Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont. Mattera divides her time between Salem, Massachusetts, and Manhattan, NY.


Julie Karabenick: There’s a remarkably longstanding use of a repertoire of simple geometric shapes and marks in your work.

Uttar 223, encaustic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2004

Joanne Mattera: From almost the beginning of my life as a painter, geometry was there. Maybe this is a cop-out answer, but it’s not so much that I chose geometry as that it chose me. I don’t think I ever made a conscious choice to work with these shapes, or to work in geometric abstraction. And yes, simplicity of element has informed my painting for most of my career.

Uttar 55
Uttar 55, encaustic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2001

Rectangles, squares, stripes and dots are suitable to my larger project, which is color. Why complicate things with swirls and asymmetry or a messy narrative? But while the compositional elements are simple and relatively ordered, the surface is layered and quite rich because of my medium: encaustic.

JK: So if we look at a very early work—

JM: I have hanging in my loft one of the first successful paintings I made: a roughly 14” x 12” panel in which a horizontal swath of vertical stripes more or less bisects the verticality of a warm gray field.

Untitled, encaustic on panel, 36 x 30 cm (14 x 12 in), 1969

JM: It was 1969. I was in art school. Stain painting and stripes were the big thing in the larger art world and in the smaller world of my art school, but this painting—in encaustic, by the way, a medium I wouldn’t return to until 20 years later—was the first thing I did that I felt was truly mine. The stripes were imperfect and oddly sized, the surface was rough, and there was one thick blue vertical swipe asserting itself in that otherwise gray field. Everything about what I was doing felt right. Not that the painting is so fabulous, but I felt that I was onto something.

JK: And if we compare that very early piece to a recent work from your ongoing Uttar series?

JM: I’m struck by the similarities between that early piece and a current work such as Uttar 269: the palette, particularly a strip of strong blue that turns up just to the left of the central axis in both paintings, and the relatively similar proportions of the stripes within the horizontal shape. This new work is considerably larger, but you can see what I’m talking about.

Uttar 269
Uttar 269, encaustic on panel, 61 x 152 cm (24 x 60 in), 2004

In any case, for me the color and the geometry are inextricably linked. They feel right together, and it feels right to continue on that path. And “feel” is the operative word here, because when I go into my studio, my right brain takes over and I go into a kind of autopilot. Later, of course, the other half of my brain kicks in, and I can assess what I’ve done, what I’m doing, make changes as necessary. But at the time I’m doing it, I’m feeling my way through. It’s always been like this, and it has worked for me, so I don’t like to analyze the “why” too much.

JK: And the grid has consistently provided the underlying structure in your work?

JM: Way back when, I was painting stripes before I started working with the grid. On some paintings, the stripes were vertical, and on others, horizontal. I don’t recall exactly when I put them together, but the moment you have verticals and horizontals interacting on one surface, you have a grid.

JK: And you’ve chosen to retain those horizontals and verticals stripes, for example in your Joss series.

Joss 12
Joss 12, gouache on paper, 56 x 56 cm (22 x 22 in), 2003

JM: In the Joss series, yes. Any time you have color floating under or over another color, you get interesting results. Sometimes, though, I depend on the negative vertical space between panels to create a kind of conceptual grid, and sometimes dots define the interstices of the grid. Color may be the expression, but the grid is the matrix.

JK: You break with the regularity of the grid, almost always subverting it to a greater or lesser extent.

JM: I respond to the orderliness and measured spaces of the grid. But the thing I most appreciate is that I can choose to work rigidly or loosely within its confines, or I can disregard it altogether—knowing it’s physically or metaphorically “under there” —so that it becomes the foundation on which I build a painting. If you look at my work, you can see that the grid is never too far from evident. In a piece like Cera 10, which I did 10 years ago when I was working more with dots than with stripes, there’s a rigorous grid deep under the surface of the painting. One of the things I like about working with encaustic is its translucency, so you can see how I’ve subverted the grid layer by layer.

Cera 10
Cera 10, encaustic on panel, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 1995

JK: Your works convey a lot of energy, which often isn’t the case with essentially grid-based work.

JM: Yes, It’s one of the reasons I work freehand. The work is more or less symmetrical, but it’s the “more” and the “less” that give it dynamism. The blocks—or dots, or stripes—are aligned in a grid, but sometimes they crowd one another. I like when that happens. And the stacks are not perfectly upright. The energy I want is contained. An analogy I might use is the electric current in a building. There’s plenty of it, but it’s flowing through the wires, as opposed to sparks flying from the outlets.

Uttar 270
Uttar 270 (Ruby Road), encaustic on panel, 91 x 188 cm (36 x 74 in), 2005

I do like the energy created by the skipped beat, the over- or under-size shape, the skew toward right or left. By the way, as a child, I never liked to color inside the lines; I liked the fringe of marks that escaped. On the other hand, I have a first-grade memory of using a small round template to trace rows and rows, stacks and stacks of circles on a large sheet of paper. My first grids! Looking back, I can say that the formalism was motivated by the pleasure of process and accretions rather than by a need to put things in their place. I guess that’s still true.

Cera 6
Cera 6, encaustic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 1995

JK: It also seems that you add excitement and visual tension to your work from the play of opposites—opposites like precise/imprecise, regular/irregular, tidy/messy.

JM: I’m interested in the space between opposite concepts. Precise/imprecise? Extremes are boring. It’s what you do at the borders, in the interstices, that makes art, and life, interesting. Tidy/messy? It’s the frisson created when messy gets organized, but it’s still just disorganized enough to upset the idea of tidy. Regular/irregular? It’s the waver, the break, the drip that energizes the whole field.

Uttar 28, encaustic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2001

Another good example of this frisson in terms of opposites is with color, with what happens when you place red next to green, say. What’s interesting me is the degree of frisson created by these complements depending on whether the colors are equally saturated or if one is tinted or toned or transparent; whether the colors abut or one is swiped over another; if there’s a lot of one color next to a little of another. So it’s not enough to think about opposites, but the degrees to which they are opposite and how those degrees affect the outcome. In any case, it’s all about the energy created as opposites fight one another or find a way to coexist.

Uttar 80
Uttar 80, encaustic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2002

JK: Though you sometimes work with muted colors, your palette seems most often highly saturated and vivid.

JM: The Uttar series, which I’ve been involved with since 2000, is all about a juicy, saturated palette, as is my gouache on paper series, Joss. The palette is inspired by Indian and Persian miniatures and the small paintings of Renaissance Siena. I am entranced by their refulgent color. My interest is with the contrast between saturated hues, or the play between saturated and more transparent hues. Occasionally I work with a celadon green that I particularly love, and when I do, my palette tends to be cooler and paler. I try not to think about color theory. Once I select a general palette for a painting, anything else that shows up in it gets there by instinct.

Uttar 164
Uttar 164, encaustic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2003

JK: And the title of the series—Uttar?

JM: I’ve called the series Uttar because I wanted a word that alluded to India, to the miniatures, without being a direct referent. Uttar Pradesh is the name of a province in India in which the Taj Mahal and the holy city of Varanesi are located. Besides it sounds similar to “utter,” which has resonant associations for me—as in “to give expression,” as in “total and unconditional,” which is essentially what I’m feeling about this work.

JK: How does the use of encaustic affect the scale of your work?

JM: Here’s the thing with encaustic, which is pigment suspended in wax: the paint is worked when it’s molten. The minute the paint leaves its heat source—for me, that would be tins of paint on a hot plate, or for large areas, electric frypans full of molten paint—the wax begins to cool. When I’m laying down a band of color, I want to get it from point A to point B before the paint cools. Otherwise, the brush and the wax congeal together on the surface of the painting—I mean, the brush gets really stuck! So one way for me to work larger is to work modularly. But it also happens that the repetition of similar elements is what I do, whether it’s on one panel or on a grouping of four, like Madrugada. Of course, each panel is slightly different, and that’s an aspect of the precise/imprecise idea we talked about earlier.

Uttar 248
Madrugada (Uttar 248), encaustic on panels, 122 x 170 cm (48 x 67 in), 2004

JK: You refer to your work as “lush minimalism.”

JM: In the same spirit of describing incompatible concepts, I use the term “lush minimalism” to describe my work. When I use the word “minimal” now, it’s somewhat flip, because my use of color, and certainly my medium—wax—are maximal. But I have a history of truly minimal work—reductive linear compositions and grids—and even now, each painting is simply an aggregation of one geometric element. I have an equal history of working in mediums with a strong sense of materiality—thread, cloth, wax, as well as thick oil or acrylic paint.

Vicolo 10
Vicolo 10, encaustic on panels, 30 x 30 cm (12x 12 in), 2004

This summer, I’m working on a group of small paintings that are pure color—layer upon layer, hue upon hue. Except for the act of brushing the paint in an alternating vertical and horizontal orientation, compositionally they’re as reductive as you can get. But chromatically, they’re probably the most succulent paintings I’ve ever done.

Silk Road
Silk Road, encaustic on panels, each 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2005

JM: I see this work as a variable-size installation of like-size paintings rather than individual paintings because the repetition of shape, changed by the color and surface, is what makes this piece work for me as geometric abstraction. The installation’s grid reflects my underlying involvement with that form. On an individual level, each monochrome painting is, in fact, a very quiet grid built up by applications of color that went on at successive right angles. I’ve limned each panel to both heighten the intensity of the color field as well as to heighten the geomety of each individual element as it fits into the larger geometric whole.The title was suggested by the luminosity, almost iridescence, of the individual paintings and a textured surface reminiscent of woven cloth.

JK: You seem to be attracted to encaustic for a variety of reasons.

Azul, encaustic on panel, 122 x 221 cm (48 x 87 in), 2001

JM: Yes, there are several. First, there is the substance. Wax has a materiality that is rich and substantial—the “lush” of my “lush minimalism.” Second, beeswax is naturally translucent— transparent, actually, in thin layers—so if I keep the ratio of pigment to wax relatively low, I can build up my color in thin layers. Transparency equals luminosity. Think about the physics of it—on a painting made of translucent layers, light passes through the surface of the painting, hits the white ground, and then bounces back up, so the painting is actually illuminated from within. Finally, there’s process. Either you love it or you hate it. Remember, I was the first grader who traced circles into pages and pages of grids, so I’m attracted to process.

But I don’t want to make encaustic into something exotic. It’s paint. When I work additively, encaustic is just like any other paint. I work it layer on layer. When I work subtractively, encaustic is extraordinarily yielding because I can scrape or dig into the surface to reveal previous layers.

Uttar 235, encaustic on panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2004

JK: I believe you’ve said that you find yourself “working against the seduction of the wax.”

JM: Wax is beautiful. Look at it! Luminous and sensuous. But when I make a painting, I want you to be seduced by the beauty of the painting on its own terms as a painting—concept, composition, surface, execution, whatever—not simply because the medium is so lovely. So I typically do things to the surface: scrape it, dig into it, drag the paint or let it drip. I want my paintings to be the beautiful equivalent of the dark-haired girl with the deep eyes and strong nose, not the perky, button-nose blond.

studio panorama
Panoramic view of Joanne Mattera’s studio

But in terms of working with color or composition, paint is paint. In July and August when it gets hot, rather than adding to the heat of the studio with hot wax, I work with gouache on paper. The work looks different, of course, because the mediums are different, but my aesthetic issues and resolutions are the same.

Joanne Mattera
Joanne Mattera with her painting Quadrate 3,
acrylic on canvas, 117 x 117 cm (46 x 46 in), 2006
Photo: Claudia Saimbert

More about Joanne Mattera

Interview images and text copyright©2005 Julie Karabenick and Joanne Mattera. All Rights Reserved.

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