Around six in the morning, Alaina Enslen scales the steps of her Hudson Valley home to the attic where she works. Skylights invite brightness into the whitewashed studio. A hotplate rests upon a wax-spattered tabletop; she turns it on, waiting until it reaches about 170°F. After five minutes, the surface is finally hot enough to melt pigmented beeswax, an integral ingredient in her paintings. She collages in an 11-inch by 14-inch sketchbook, teasing out new ideas with pieces of fabric and leftover monotypes. “I set no expectations for the work,” the artist insists. “It’s all about experiment and play.”
Enslen’s predilection for play stems back to childhood—as military brats, she and her five brothers learned to keep themselves busy wherever they landed. Her earliest memories are set in Japan, and she would go on to live in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States throughout her youth. “I was a very curious child, and it got me into a lot of mischief,” Enslen confessed during a virtual studio visit with the Orange County Arts Council. It follows that, at age three, she stuck a bobby pin into an electrical socket; in addition to sustaining third-degree burns, Enslen began to have difficulty speaking but found solace in visual expression. “I joke to my friends that it was my first language and the one I’m still most comfortable with today,” she says. Though her mother, grandmother, and aunts “could make pretty much anything with thread and a needle,” it just wasn’t for her. Instead of crafting quilts and clothing like the other women in her family, she experimented with fabric and paper two-dimensionally, sowing the seeds for much of her work to date.
Clear-eyed and effortlessly kind, Enslen stakes her artistry on collaborating with material. She listens, not only to people but also to the hushed assertions of gravity, temperature, texture, and form, as she layers textiles and paper media with liquid-hot wax. “If there’s anything I’m trying to convey,” Enslen primes, “it’s [my] emotional response to materials,” which she favors for their “willingness to be transformed, both in form and texture.”
To begin, she glides three or four varicolored chunks of wax over her hotplate. They melt, contorting but not quite blending into a kinetic abstraction. Decisively, at just the right moment, she pulls mulberry paper across the wax, creating a monotype that quickly solidifies. Enslen repeats this process several times over, then selects fabric to complement the monotypes. “I have boxes of ties and unfinished quilt patches from my grandparents, clothes my children have outgrown, linens, and various fabrics from thrift stores. I include garments I’ve worn out and things my friends have given me,” she explains. “Fabrics are weighted with stories of rituals, points of views, identity, social and religious norms, cultural pride—for better or worse—and much more.” Finally, she arranges the textiles and monotypes on canvas or a birch panel, adhering them with locally sourced beeswax. “It feels as if I’m building a land mass with heating and cooling, eroding and layering,” Enslen says. She cuts and collages, commingling the sentimental with the spontaneous, history with possibility, until the composition avers finality.
Now, forget how she does it long enough to really look at her paintings in The Summer Show, on view at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson, NY, through August 6, 2023. Off, Petite Pi, Wrapped in Time, and five iterations of Ley Lines call to mind the idiom “frozen in time,” though a phrasal rearrangement is in order: Enslen freezes time as space. Part artifact, part event, she emancipates a fixed past with a limitless present. These concurrent timelines advance, recede, and collide like tectonic plates, obscured yet undiminished by their hand-hewn fragmentation.
More of Alaina Enslen’s paintings are available at www.carriehaddadgallery.com.