Wax works – Living, breathing images in charcoal and wax.


By Leon Nigrosh

Some readers may remember that it was a little less than a year ago that art works by Marilyn Solomon Kalish were favorably reviewed in the pages of this paper. At that time, she was heavily involved with three-dimensional bas-reliefs and sculptural wall pieces. However, she also showed, somewhat reluctantly, three new charcoal and wax “drawings” which turned out to be portents of a fundamental change in direction for her artistic endeavors.

Now, eight months later we can see her very latest works in the Gordon Library gallery at WPI. The current images are the complete antithesis of her previous works, objects that were very time consuming to gather and arrange and then construct to exacting specifications. These new pieces consist of a complex array of fleeting gestural marks seemingly made in a race to capture the feeling and the instant, to freeze them in the wax before they escape. The very large scale of each drawing at first commands our attention, and then beckons us in for a closer look. And on close examination we begin to see just how facile Kalish is with her drawing implements.

Her handling of the charcoal stick on both Mother Wit and Tis a gift to be simple is strongly reminiscent of drawings by early masters such as the graceful anatomical studies by Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Théodore Géricault’s (1791-1824) heroic sketchbooks.

In each case there is a noticeable and active variation in the lines as they change from light to dark and thick to thin all the while charging across the page. Kalish further emboldens her work with judicious smudges to create volume and skin tone along with inventive gouging and scraping back to the white paper for added visual— as well as physical—depth. All the while adhering to the monochromatic values inherent in the charcoal itself.

The solitary figure in her five-foot tall charcoal and wax on paper Awake appears to burst upwards through a multitude of sweeping lines cut into the clear wax surface. Its classical stance emerges from pale to dark tones as it thrusts higher and higher. One can almost imagine wings. Nearby, the blackened image in the seven-foot-tall signature piece of this exhibition, Breathe, actually does sprout wings as it spreads across three large sheets of wax-coated paper. This work, the only unframed piece in the show, still exudes a faint aroma of wax, which adds to the title’s apparent bidding that we join in, expand our lungs, and breathe.

Kalish is not above social commentary on a grander level. Her drawing entitled Pillar of Society offers us an almost WPA-style image of two figures with uplifted faces placed between two tall Doric columns, with the graffito inscription, “The artist and the institution.” Along with her adept use of charcoal drawing and scraping in wax, Kalish has introduced another design element, a series of spirals. Upon reflection, it turns out that she made these spirals by touching the drawing’s surface with the hotplate coil used to warm the wax. It is left up to us to decide whether this application was intentional at first, as well as which pillar in the drawing is referred to in the title—the artist, the establishment, or the actual fluted columns.

The only “landscape” in this exhibition, A Precipitous Place, is a mad jumble of charcoal squiggles and vigorous wax scratching that resembles a mountainside bathed in the glow of the sun—another hotplate spiral. This piece has a distinct flavor of period Japanese ink-painted landscapes. Made up of myriad marks, both dark and light, broad and narrow, with measured white areas between them to suggest space, this work has a charm similar to the scroll paintings of one of the few recognized Meiji era female artists, Noguchi Shohin (1847-1917).

At the beginning of this review, I suggested that these works were rapidly executed in a flurry of activity. In truth, this is not the case. Kalish does start each work intuitively, making marks on a page, or as she says, “just drawing.” But then, if something connects within her, she leaves the drawing alone in the studio. Later she “spends more time with it,” working with the surfaces and textures as she learns more from the drawing itself. This process, which she finds so important, continues over time until the particular piece reaches a state of physical and emotional completeness. It is this totality in each of her images that she offers up to us as a bridge of personal discovery.