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Toby Sisson moved from the Twin Cities to Massachusetts a few years ago, but she returned home this month, as Air Sweet Air‘s visiting artist, with a solo show of new encaustic paintings, “Into the Black,” now on view at the gallery.

Toby Sisson, “Natural History,” encaustic monotype, 12″ x 12″, 2012. Image courtesy of Air Sweet Air

Encaustic, or “hot wax,” painting is a technique reaching back to antiquity – most familiar for its use in early Egyptian art and medieval Christian icons of haloed saints. For an artist working in the form now, the weight of that cultural history must be everpresent. I know of a handful of contemporary artists notable for their encaustic paintings – Jasper Johns and Tony Scherman, to name a couple – but you just don’t run across many artists actively working in the form.

Seeing Sisson’s subtle, complex works, I wonder why not.

Toby Sisson, “Familiar Asylum VI,” encaustic and graphite on wood, 12″ x 12″, 2012. Image courtesy of Air Sweet Air

She enrobes wood, and sometimes paper and other materials too, with translucent layers-upon-layers of pigment and wax, which lends her imagery an uncanny depth and dimension. Sisson takes advantage of the sculptural possibilities of the wax, but she does so with a light touch, patterning the surface with granular protrusions, textural hatch-marks and countless pinprick pockmarks.

I remember Sisson’s earlier paintings for the earthy warmth of their hues: coral sweeps against mustard or greenish, loamy brown. In this new work, though, her colors are restrained, even austere: black on a dense field of white or white on inky black, and shades of gray, accented occasionally with a stark sweep of cadmium yellow, cobalt or viridian.

Toby Sisson, “Pull I,” encaustic monotype, 18″ x 18″, 2012. Image courtesy of Air Sweet Air

These works are scaled smaller than is usual for Sisson, made so specifically to accommodate the intimate confines of installation in this exhibition space, says Air Sweet Air’s proprietor, Cheryl Wilgren Clyne. Sisson’s forms are elemental, suggestive but decidedly abstract: cellular globules, a spray of spores, seed pod-like shapes, distended with pregnant, almost humanoid curves. Her lines of demarcation are often diffuse, indistinct  – one form rupturing, bleeding into another.

The layers upon layers of almost-transparent wax occlude as much as they reveal. There’s a palpable and compelling melancholy in Sisson’s new work, and the nuance of that unease lends her pieces a gravity and haunting allure. Do see the work in person if you can – this artist’s subtleties really aren’t done justice by flat, on-screen representation.

You can see the show for one more week at Air Sweet Air in Lowertown, 262 E. 4th St., suite 203, St. Paul. “Into the Black: New Work by Toby Sisson” closes with a reception next Sunday, August 5. You can see the exhibition by appointment until then; for contact information and event details, visit www.airsweetair.org.

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