Writing Archive

Egg Tempera: An Enduring Tradition

Miami Art Exchange, June 20, 2002

This may be as painful to read as it is to write - Egg Tempera: An Enduring Tradition, which was at MDCC-Kendall Gallery until June 7, was a must-see show. I haven't stared slack-jawed at so much art since I went to Italy last year.

If you didn't see it, you're in good company; this is the first press that the show is receiving. Perhaps the weekday-only gallery hours or its out-of-the-way location were deterring. But one thing is sure: this work doesn't look like it was made in Miami. It's well-drawn, carefully wrought, and otherwise antithetical to the slapped-together, art-lite look that predominates the local scene. Likely our regional art poobahs couldn't get their brains around it.

I've worked a little in egg tempera, and I find that the medium has a lot of advantages. The colors are easy to make, they can be made for a pittance, and they clean up in water. They have a satiny finish which is neither glossy like oils or matte like gouache, and come closer to recreating the translucent quality of human skin than any other medium. It's easy to work precisely with it, much more so than oils. After it dries it becomes chemically inert - no yellowing or cracking. I saw this for myself in the Fra Angelicas in Cortona. The panels have weathered, but the colors themselves look like they were applied last week. (Please forgive the pedagogy, but a little may be in order. The gallery director confided that more than one person had asked her, What does that mean - 'Egg Tempura'? Maybe they thought it was a side dish for the chicken katsu.)

Its main disadvantage is that creating a finished realist image with it requires the patience of a saint, a disadvantage that speaks worse of our speed-driven culture than the medium itself. It dries too quickly to be blended, so forms have to be developed with hundreds or thousands of gradated hatch-marks.

Another disadvantage of the medium, through no fault of its own, is that it seems to attract fetishists. This is the curse of having a love of tradition - that in embracing the ancient technique, one will adopt the extras as well the essentials. Many religious paintings done in egg tempera incorporate ornate frames and gold leaf by the acre; I'll bet those big Fra Angelicas done in this manner looked great under the candlelight on the altar. But similar treatment all but murdered some of the work in the show which was tiny and secular. An otherwise lovely painting of asparagus by Fred Wessel is an example; it could be improved with a bandsaw by cauterizing a carved, gilt, bejeweled border that was nearly the same size as the image and forced it into a weird scalloped rhombus.

The medium seems to frustrate innovators. The abstract work in the show, aside from an okay Klee-ish piece by Patricia Kelly was not worth considering. Much of the non-realist figurative work came off as cack-handed, art-fair-echelon, or twee. No one seems to have followed the way pointed out by Ben Shahn, whose flat but painterly expressionist works were done largely in egg tempera. Instead the day was carried by the Botticelli camp (the Idealists) and the Andrew Wyeth camp (the Realists).

And damn, did they carry the day. Some of them use the gold and the crafty pictorial stunts like the others, but whatever problems they might have presented were bulldozed by sheer force of drawing. The Poem by Peter Bergt depicts a dozed-off model clutching an illustrated volume of Blake who looks like she's taking a break from her perpetual appearance in Botticelli's Madonna del Magnificat. Those are the Botticelli hands, to a T; the upturned face, local colors, and linear delicacy give the old master a run for his money. One could probably make a case for its being derivative; I was too stunned to care.

Also in the Botticelli camp was a duo, Suzanne Scherer and Papel Ouperov, and their two paintings in the show were gorgeous. Victoria is an image of a girl lying lazily in an empty bathtub surrounded by a stamped gold pattern. Lanky and relaxed, she rang with pubescent eroticism as the gold stars surrounding raised her sexuality to an elevated, cosmic level. Thirty-Six Weeks has a standing nude tenderly holding her pregnant belly, accomplishing a similar kind of deified eroticism with the second age of woman.

In the Wyeth camp was Carol Mothner, whose image of an aged, weathered doll was quietly haunting, as well as straight-ahead knockout realists Carolyn Patterson, William Patterson, Marcea Rundquist, Phil Schirmer, and Patton Wilson. Carolyn Patterson's image of an interior view with butternut squashes and Schirmer's no-nonsense landscape with boulders and oaks were especially seductive.

My Window by Mark Meunier was a landscape seen through a pink-curtained window. All is normal, except for a tiny red pickup truck perched on the window frame. It's too detailed to be a toy. When I was a kid (and sometimes since then), I used to stare at things in the room and pretend they were miles high, and I think Meunier does the same thing; this painting captures that mixture of imagination and real life exactly

Figurative painting always seems to in the midst of a comeback - Bay Area Figuration in the 50s, Pop in the 60s, Porter, Katz and others in the 70s, William Bailey, Eric Fischl and others in the 80s, Lucien Freud and others in the 90s. I think it's safe to say that it is curatorial attention that ebbs and flows, not the production of any one kind of work. The common idea is that art history is a series of revolutionary innovations in which new ideas replace old ones, which is exciting but wrong. Art's innovations have always stood squarely on traditions in order to take the next step, and in our pluralistic age, these traditions continue (as the title of this show put it) enduring. Better yet, in certain hands they thrive. This show was the proof.

Word count: 1012

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