At first encounter, you may find the assertive texture of Alexandre Masino’s paintings at odds with the contemplative calm of his imagery. How can a still life so perfectly placed or a landscape so ethereally tranquil have been created by such forceful pushing and pulling of paint? Before you answer, consider the inhalation and exhalation of your breathing. In the duality of that action, a complete breath is made, and in the repetition of that cycle, life continues. So it is with the image before you: a serene moment in time that pulses with the energy of its making.
This may be an overly Zen reading, but dualities of this sort abound in Masino’s work—and not only in his individual paintings, where vigor pushes smack up against composure, but in his oeuvre. There is, for instance, the matter of large and small: sweeping views of earth and sky in his landscapes versus modest arrangements of fruit in his still lifes. The matter of illumination: the suffused light of plein air versus the dramatic shadows wrought by incandescence. Of palette: coolly northern (many of the landscapes were inspired by a residency in far northern Sweden, other by the Rockies near Banff) versus hot and juicy (the still lifes of ripe summer fruit). Of emotional resonance: crisp and distant versus succulent and intimate.
While each painting may be the essence of compositional equipoise, there is no languorous looking at Masino’s work. To get beneath the surface, you must plunge vigorously into the act of seeing: figure and ground, light and shadow, image and surface, each in relation to the another and all parts in relation to the whole. The exhalation, what isn’t there, is as important as what is. “The most difficult part of painting is not the depiction of the object but of everything around it,” admits Masino. “The negative space is crucial. I spend more time on it than on the actual depiction of an object, so my greatest challenges are in the places most people don’t see.”
Take, for instance, the still life Culte diurne. Two plump bulbs of garlic sit in a shallow bowl, a solitary third bulb casting a long shadow nearly to the pair. The triangular tips of the bulbs are repeated—suggested, really— in the corner of the table, which almost disappears into the lighter space of the background. The shape of the bowl is repeated in the s-curve of the lone bulb. The bowl itself is a neat inversion, not only of geometry but of tone. The monochromatic foreground and background are in fact composed of layers of different and complementary hues, some peeking out from under a textured surface that has been endlessly built up and scraped back. What seems at first glance to be an almost minimal picture, is in fact vibrating with interrelationships of shape, color, light, shadow and space.
These elements are in place in larger landscapes as well. In Terrase des nuées, you find a majestic view of mountains and sky— about as far away as possible from an unassuming genre scene—and yet the geometry of this landscape evokes a compositional déjà vu. Then you see it: how the angle of the mountains, the twin peaks, the third peak at a distance carry distinct visual echoes of the little garlic still life.
Not every Masino landscape has its counterpart in a still life, of course, but active seeing rewards with unexpected visual resonance. In the twilight/dawn that marks the Nordic summer night, tall trees hold the edge of a lake ablush with crepuscular light. Indoors, several parallels south, a squat wedge of freshly cut melon sits on a table, its coral flesh succulent against a cool sky-blue tabletop. The warm/cool palette and curve-bottom shapes of the still lifes echo the compositional elements of lake and sky. Perhaps you will see something different in the landscapes of Clair comme soleil dormant and Au soir de chaque jour vis à vis L'épouse du ciel and Nimbés de brumes, but active seeing will reveal things you hadn’t expected, particularly since Masino’s imagery is developed as much through creative invention as through direct observation. “I’m not striving for resemblance of a place, but for the emotions we experience in front of that specific place,” says Masino. So you may feel the echoes as well as see them.
As he shifts his view—and ours—from the long view to the close-up, Masino maintains the same emotional perspective with an active dialog between raw power and refined beauty, between representation and abstraction. You also see this perspective in the small range of colors he uses within each painting—occasionally a warm/cool palette, but more often a deeply chromatic “monochrome.” Places and objects, deeply felt, are distilled to their essence: haiku as opposed to epic. As for scale, while the long views are relatively limitless, the still lifes are quite specific: everything is painted life size.
There is no human presence in Masino’s painting, except that of the viewer. “I put the emphasis on life itself, on the desire and beauty of here and now,” he says. “I see the subject of my still life as the relation between beings and the introspection within oneself. The landscapes look outside to what is bigger in a kind of communion with the grandeur of life. Put in a simple way, I believe the universe is within us, as we are within the universe.” So perhaps a Zen reading of Masino’s work is not out of place after all.
Coming full circle to the beginning of this essay, let us look at the way Masino pushes and pulls (and builds up and scrapes off) paint to create his images. Masino paints in encaustic, pigment suspended in beeswax. An ancient medium, encaustic is enjoying a resurgence. Part of its appeal is that the wax, more substantive than other mediums, traps the light, releasing it slowly with a numinous glow. When it is handled well, encaustic yields color that is richer and a surface that is more tangible than conventional oil or acrylic. Masino handles the medium masterfully, wresting from it every nuance of shape, shadow and hue. Such control does not easily flow from the brush, and certainly not when it is employed in service to respresentation, for unlike conventional paint that is brushed on wet and needs time to dry, encaustic is applied when it is molten, a state that exists for a second or two before it hardens. This is barely enough time to deliver the paint from the heat source to the painting’s surface, so each individual brushstroke is a miniature cycle in flux— molten liquid turned to hardened paint— repeated over and over during the making of a painting. Then each group of brushstrokes must be fused lightly (via heatgun or small torch) to the surface already laid down.
While repetition of the process may be meditative, the process itself is intensely physical. Painter and painting are bound as much by sweat as by vision. And Masino’s vision is bound as much by introspection as by outward expression. These contrary ideas, indeed all the exquisite dualities in Masino’s work, exist in the simple yet sublime pas de deux of emotion intertwined with the tangible.
Joanne Mattera, 2007