Greg Angus: The Working Hand

Encaustic Painting is an ancient art form. The word encaustic comes from the Hellenic word ‘encaustickos’ which means ‘burning in’. The ancient Hellenes (Greeks) used wax paint in different ways, often directly on architecture and sculpture. Other cultures used it as well; the many techniques of wax painting enjoyed periodic revival over centuries. More recently, in the 1950s Jasper Johns helped bring it to the modern world of art. In his most well-known work, arguably the flag paintings, Johns conflates the symbol of the flag with the material properties of encaustic paint, and in true Dadaist fashion reframes human perception, the nature of reality in a post-war America. Is it a flag or an image of a flag? Once the abstract expressionists claimed a central position in American art, along with America’s post-war rise to world domination, Johns blew it all apart through polychrome wax provocations. He still lives and paints today.

As a material artist and a student of painting, Greg Angus echoes Jasper Johns, conveying connection between materiality and image. Famously, Johns doesn’t speak about his work; Greg Angus is equally silent on his. Beyond the limitations of words, Angus also draws out the boundaries of material form. There is more than what initially meets retina in the work of Greg Angus. His concise titles do offer a clue into each painting.

In work and in life Angus is influenced by eastern philosophies, aesthetics, and Japanese culture. After receiving his MFA from the University of British Columbia in 1986 he moved to Tokyo developing his painting skills while living as a visual artist and taking a deep dive into the practice of Aikido. In Japan, the artist’s work grew to consider the interconnections between body (materiality) and mind (visual thought). Angus paints figuratively, although his images are obscured within the space of painting, between figure and ground. Materially, his paintings are layered on wood panels with up to thirty coats of pigmented wax, scraped back to reveal previously applied layers - a process influenced partly by traditional Japanese urushi painting - translated into a multilayered contemporary practice. Often the work evokes nature, movements of water, infrared images of ocean temperatures and of the planet, the cosmos and hurricane spirals. It also references the human body, biological patterns, DNA markers, and the body in relation to space.

There is a lot going on. Some of his thinking can be accessed more directly in two example collage works by the artist. The first collage is titled ‘Moby Dick’ and the second is ‘Snakes and Ladders’. Both pieces explore our relationship to nature and technology. The first piece, the story of whale hunting and life aboard a working ship amongst a culturally diverse crew, reflects issues of social status, class and belief systems. The second piece, the game of Snakes and Ladders, evokes a metaphorical exploration of the labyrinth myth. Daedalus designed the labyrinth to force nature (represented by the minotaur beast) into a state of human control. This myth reflects our relationship to evolving technologies, which seek to separate us from nature and to solve the problems created by us in a labyrinthian pursuit of technological innovation. Additional imagery also appears in this piece. The collage also depicts the Buddhist Vietnamese monk, Thích Quảng Đức, who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon intersection in 1963 as protest to state persecution of Buddhism, by the Christian leadership.

Beneath the surfaces of his mature paintings, Angus quietly asserts a working-class ethic. The artist comes from a family of Hamilton steelworkers. His work represents class struggle (labour/commodity) and technological confinement (power/control). The application of an old technology of wax and pigment on wood is not by accident, notwithstanding the artist’s early story of a fluke accident with a candle. Rather, this is a painting style Angus has cogently arrived at after lengthy practice. First comes the image, usually figurative and often old, sometimes microscopic but frequently bigger than life, from fingerprints to cosmologic frequencies. Over the course of layering, Angus surgically removes and adds pigmented wax to reveal and construct a palimpsest, compressing image and history to a resonant effect. As expected, the work is time consuming, labourious and powerful.

‘We Are What We Have Been Waiting For’ (shown here) is an epic painting spanning twenty-four feet, the artist’s largest work to date. The painting is heavy, thick, not in the material sense alone, but with vital energy that is held together and carefully composed, animated from the inside. Reading the painting, from left to right, up and down or along paths of energy, is narratively slow and circuitous. The painting asks us to dwell in it the way Claude Monet invites immersion into his epic ‘Water Lilies’ 1914-26, MoMA, NY. Angus transforms Monet’s literal depiction of water into physical movement of fingerprints and Aikido energy, through concentric wax swirls, expanding and contracting fields of energy, brought to eye through coloured light on retina.

Slow painting, the kind that Angus practices, represents more than self-expression. The work compresses being in real time, the present, with a continuous re-working of the immediate past. The work vibrates, not the fleeting energy one might experience in a spectacle or on-line, but a sustained energy, a buzz or hum that resonates and echoes within the confines of the body, between the artist and the engaged viewer. Synesthetic experience is possible, for those who have the courage to enter the spaces between the artist’s working hand and alchemic materiality.

Dimitri Papatheodorou

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