It’s All About Beeswax

Michael David - One-eyed Turtle and Floating Sandalwood - by Terry CheckArtists commonly work with different mediums, such as oil, acrylics, watercolors, ink, and pencil. Michael David takes contemporary art to a new level by using an ancient Egyptian medium of encaustics: a mixture of beeswax, pigment, and resin. With it, he creates extraordinary abstract artwork.
Raised in Brooklyn, he, with Roy Stuart and Richie Strotts, formed a punk rock group called The Plasmatics (the first with the Mohawks, guitar smashing and chainsaws), while attending Parsons School of Design in New York City. After leaving the band to pursue an art career, he had an exhibition in a solo show at the historic Sidney Janis Gallery in 1981. This was followed by him receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship, at the time the youngest artist ever to do so. Like Michael’s music, his artwork was immediate, dangerous, and reckless, made by pouring hot encaustic wax where, he says, the “act of painting defines the narrative more than the narrative defines the art.” His artwork embodies layers of wax and time, quickly and sometimes more slowly, with the time sequence becoming the abstraction (artwork) like life itself.
Often working endless hours to finish pieces for the next show, Michael accidentally poisoned himself with the toxic fumes of the hot encaustic mixture; this partially paralyzed him for life. Afterward, in a diminished physical capacity, he created one of his best known works, “Fallen Toreadors,” inspired by the 19th century painter, Édouard Manet. Speaking of the series, Michael explains, “My work [became] about compassion. Compassion for those different from us, compassion for each other, and, most importantly, compassion for oneself, for a painter who was reckless enough to hurt himself doing what he loves most.”
Michael David_TheNavigatorDuring a recent visit to his studio in Atlanta, Michael was finishing several pieces to be exhibited at the Bill Lowe Gallery. As happens so often with contemporary abstract artwork, the viewer may feel the intensity, rhythm, and complexity of the painting but does not see the work’s narrative. Hanging on the wall is a piece called “One-eyed Turtle and Floating Sandalwood Log,” which originated from a Buddhist parable. Michael was inspired by the story of a turtle living on the ocean floor, who, every thousand years, floats to the ocean surface in search of a hollowed-out sandalwood log, so it could pass through the log and find enlightenment on the other side. With only one eye, the turtle sees that north is south and east is west, always seeking but never finding the sandalwood log, and never achieving enlightenment. This parable becomes the process of painting reflecting the artist’s transformation. “Accept, let it go, let things fall apart, and as it falls apart, pull them back together,” as Michael says about the narrative.
Another piece, somewhat dark, deep, and complex, is called “The Navigator” in memory of his father, a WWII air force navigator. Returning from his duty abroad, his father never made peace with himself, gambled his money away, and the two did not have many family moments together. Michael’s best memories of his father occured at night when they were together. His father would point out the constellations and tell stories about the war. These stories became metaphors: “How do you navigate through life? How to be a father? How to be a son?” Michael recalls. His artwork brings these metaphors to life- along with tearful memories.
Hey… this is a little heavy to understand. It’s like learning French: keep an open mind and start with the basics. As your vocabulary increases, so will your understanding. The same is true with contemporary abstract art. Sérieux, je ne plaisante pas (seriously, I am not kidding).

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