Encaustic technique used in art that gets under your skin for Cambridge gallery
A remarkable collection of stolen and recently recovered art, created using the little-known encaustic technique developed in ancient Egypt and Greece, is currently being exhibited at ArtSpace57, Portugal Place, Cambridge.
Gurpran Rau’s Under the Skin exhibition investigates, “at a molecular level, the internal essence shared by all beings: the genetic blueprint of humanity”.
The encaustic method, also known as hot wax painting, helps to create a 3D result – hard to capture on film – with the wax both encasing and enhancing the paint underneath, creating dimensionality and luminosity.
The oldest surviving encaustic panel paintings are Romano-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits from around 100–300 AD. More recently, the method has been used by celebrated contemporary artists like Jasper Johns.
“It’s a long process of melt, fuse and melt,” says Gurpran when I visit her and the exhibition’s curator and director of ArtSpace57 gallery, Anna Dempster, the day before opening. “I started using this technique in 2004. It involves beeswax and damar resin, a very toxic combination, it requires wearing a heavy-duty mask and ventilation, and using a heat gun and special trays for the wax. It melts it at 150 degrees, working really fast as it dries immediately upon contact with the surface, fusing layer after layer, sometimes five or six layers.”
“It’s a very masterful technique,” adds Anna. “I think it’s the first time this medium has been exhibited in a gallery in Cambridge. Very few people use it. Even teaching it is complex, very highly skilled. It’s hard to photograph and difficult to understand the process from photos. It’s much more exciting in real life. The light catches the pieces and they’re continuously changing, they’re almost alive.”
Gurpran was born in northern India. She studied textile design in Delhi and was a fashion designer with a New York-based company before moving to Paris where she studied French civilisation at the Sorbonne and took classes at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.
Later she completed a Masters in Fine Art in the US.
“California embraced me, I had a few museum shows there, and I really feel I belong there. Having lived all over the world, when people ask me where I’m from I say I’m from planet Earth... This planet is for everyone.”
Gurpran’s story took an unfortunate turn some years back when the paintings disappeared: this is the first time they’ve been exhibited since being recovered.
“A reputed gallery representing me disappeared with the art,” she says. “It was a huge police case, Interpol was involved. Eventually the paintings were found in a warehouse in the Cotswolds, but the owners had fled to France. The case went on for years but was never resolved, and finally some of the works were released by the police and returned to me.
“It was quite traumatic as the paintings were like my babies, the police said they’d found them in a very bad state. I didn’t have the courage to open them, until Anna approached me to exhibit them.”
“She had to be brave,” Anna says. “She had no idea what condition they were in. Most of them were, amazingly, okay.”
The works are hybrids, combining digital print, pigment, collage and encaustic media on maple panel.
All the work is on display until September 5. The exhibition depicts themes central to Gurpran’s art. She explains “genetic codes and archetypal forms such as circles and knots are embedded in layers over digital portraits, reflecting our shared genetic inheritance”.
She adds: “They represent hidden codes, complex structures, and histories that lie beneath the surface of our skin. I manipulate the wax to form irregularities and imperfections, conveying the impression of human skin and binding membranes. The faces in my art represent our diverse population and its varied ‘phenotypes’. They celebrate the beauty of difference, but, like a photographic negative, reference medical x-rays, where perception is blurred – emphasising our beneath-the-skin similarities.
“Some of these pieces focus on the DNA knot. Knots take part in genetic replication and transcription and are thus essential to the reproduction of our species. Since these knots are almost exact replicas of their mathematical cousins, I am intrigued by their similar configurations, both topologically and geometrically. I perceive them as a metaphor for links that tie all of humanity together. Their circular and chain-like formations also suggest the idea of continuity and infinity. Every living being on this planet is linked in the great web of life; we are inevitably and inescapably related.
“My body of work acknowledges the fact that all human DNA is 99.9 per cent identical. This unifying truth is the cumulative, co-operative product of scientific endeavour across all differences - ‘race’ has no meaning in the lexicon of our genetic code.”
Under the Skin is at ArtSpace57, 5-7 Portugal Place, Cambridge, until September 5. Viewing by appointment only via email@example.com.