Mixed Media, Multiple Meanings: The Art of Joe Vescovich
By David P. Kozinski
Joe Vescovich refers to himself as a sculptural painter, which is as apt a description as can be made without using many more words. Combining encaustic painting, wood, metal and photography, in varying proportions and permutations, he creates artworks that invite us into their sensual textures and palate while maintaining an emotional reserve. The works are both personal and, as the artist writes, “heavily influenced by architecture, industrialized shapes, and manufactured objects.”
Triptychs like “Code” and “Who Are You Looking At?” induce the viewer to consider what is inside the components of the works, but also how the components interact with each other, and the space in which they are exhibited, including the shadows they cast in changing light. The former is a traditional triptych – the panels are aligned side by side with spaces in between them – that features a repeated outline of a human form, rendered in three different color combinations. The repeated, small rectangular shapes superimposed on the figures suggest the genetic code that dwells in each of us. “Code” also means the language in which computer programs are created. Vescovich may not be the first artist to perceive this parallel, but his depiction of it is elegant and compelling, thanks in part to variations of color from panel to panel.
“Who Are You Looking At?” offers adjoining panels, their heights staggered so that the middle one is at the top. The space around and between them produces an entirely different sensation from “Code”, as does the subject matter. Using photographic images, each panel presents an individual examining an artwork in a museum setting, which ties the three parts together thematically, as does the object of each person’s attention. The man in the left-hand section, his neck thrust back, gazes toward the ceiling (or the sky?). The woman in the middle is taking a photograph of a round object that looks like a planet, and the youth on the right, seen from behind, peruses a painting of a night sky. Implications about the relationship of mankind and nature, of mankind and art, abound. Vescovich leaves it to viewers to draw conclusions.
There is a wry sense of humor present, as is so often true when we witness a picture within a picture, a play within a play. A companion triptych, “Looking at You” also portrays people taking in artworks, posed similarly to “Who Are You Looking At?” In fact, the man and the youth are the same figures in both works, but the woman and the youth are no longer examining depictions of celestial objects. Instead, they are looking at abstract artworks. In both triptychs, the foreground of each panel is dabbed with a series of what look like waxy blobs. Not only are we watching the watchers, the artist is present, affecting each apparently solitary perusal.
Vescovich’s art education includes studies through the DeMazia Foundation of the Barnes Art Museum, courses in encaustics at the University of the Arts (UArts) and through the International Encaustics Workshop, and photography courses at UArts. He credits local photographer John Barclay with introducing him to the camera at a weekend retreat in the Poconos. While still in high school, Vescovich learned a great deal about traditional joinery and the characteristics of wood through an apprenticeship as a pattern maker.
Vescovich has had solo shows of his encaustics at the Philadelphia Welcome Center in 2015, at Derrek’s in Manayunk in 2014, and at the Abstract Expressions Gallery in Mount Holly, NJ, where he has also exhibited his photography. His photographic work has been exhibited in Lancaster, PA, Wilmington, DE and at UArts, which purchased one of his photographs in 2009. He received the Best in Show Award and the Hetznecker Memorial Award in the Manayunk-Roxborough Art Center’s (MRAC) 2013 Juried Show. His works in wood have been exhibited in a statewide juried show at the Harrisburg (PA) Museum of Art as well as in galleries in Charlottesville, VA, and in Philadelphia and Elkins Park, PA.
The encaustic process Vescovich uses involves mixing heated bees’ wax, pigments and dammar resin and applying the mixture to a receptive surface. The application can be reheated and manipulated by adding layers, scraping and carving with various tools, and refining the surface with solvents. “Encaustic painting is exciting to me because of the depth of the surface, the way it captures light, and its versatility,” Vescovich explains. “One needs to go with the flow and let the wax find its place. That means working quickly to make decisions and place a stroke to create the texture.” He adds, “This decisiveness and loss of control is very similar to whitewater kayaking. From my time on the rivers, I’ve learned that you have to take advantage of water’s power, but fighting the current will never get you anyplace.“
Vescovich observes that nature, particularly rivers and creeks, have informed his sense of the dynamics in his artwork. The Ottawa River, Québec; Deerfield River, Massachusetts; and the Tochickon and Yoghogheny (upper and lower) Rivers of Pennsylvania are among those Vescovich has “paddled”. He has recently taken up mountain biking “as a substitute, in large part because I can get into the woods quickly and back out within the same day.” He finds a “ribbon of continuity” in moving water that interacts with stationary objects like rocks. These interactions are paralleled in sculptural paintings such as “Ridge Line” and “Rising Sun”. The works are abstract, and largely leave interpretation to the viewer, but both exemplify a flow interrupted or rerouted by an object. Again, the three-dimensionality of the works produces an interplay of light and shadow within them that itself interacts with the surrounding walls and ceiling.
Brightly colored blocks “branded” with curves and circles cascade through the parallel, horizontal members of “Ridge Line” like patterns of light on moving water. The sense of flow is reinforced by the diagonals at both ends of the work, as well as the aluminum highlighting between the members on the half to the viewer’s left. In “Rising Sun”, parallel members are also positioned to create diagonals at both ends, but the flow is redirected by a large circular object. This “sun” is itself divided into sections, painted with concentric circles and a pattern of rays in subtle colors.
The uniformity of the components and the highly finished surfaces in all of these assembled works connote the industrial and architectural influences that Vescovich cites. Meanwhile, the juxtapositions of subtle and vivid colors, of straight and curved shapes, and of representational photography and abstraction evoke the world of streams and rocks, people and places, and of refracted sunlight and shadows.
“Triple Drop – Rapid Series” is a solar system of intersecting panels. The large red circle and the blue one, reminiscent of a photograph of earth from outer space, both connect with two others while each of the three smaller components intersects with another only once. On closer examination, the panels float on the same plane, and the overlaps are implied. The blue and amber “circles” have ovals cut out of them and the negative spaces between them and their neighbors are crossed over with arcs painted on the adjoining circles. The two red panels and the predominantly white one are whole, physical circles.
“Triple Drop”, like the other works discussed here, exudes a cool playfulness: viewers are pleasantly surprised when they discover the works can be perceived in more than one way. At the same time, precise applications of pigments and renderings of geometric shapes demonstrate clarity of thought and careful planning. This is also true of “Boulder Garden” in which six rectangular panels of different sizes adjoin at three different depths. Each rectangle has a dominant color and is finished with patterns of squares and drips that echo the dominant colors of the other panels.
All of these sculptural paintings exercise the eye without taxing it. Most abstract artists insist that their works are oriented a certain way (with a top and a bottom, left and right) and should be exhibited as intended. Vescovich confides that some of his pieces, like “Rising Sun”, are made to be hung horizontally or vertically, depending on the exhibition space. “On a horizontal, the idea was to have the piece over a couch. In that position it fills the space very nicely,” he writes, adding, “Vertically, the piece looks great in a narrow area that you often see near light switches.” This practical, casual approach to his work not only reflects Vescovich’s blending of the industrial influence and a lightheartedness, it is downright refreshing.