Postcolonial Thoughts: Critique of Michael David’s “The One-Eyed Turtle and the Floating Sandalwood Log”

by Christopher Hutchinson

Michael David is widely regarded as the one of the top encaustic artists of the 21st century. He has built his career on abstraction and an intuitive need to explore the continuity of wax as a medium, which has presently developed into dense and lush pictorial landscapes. His work is included in the permanent public collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Guggenheim Museum in New York,and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, as well as in many prominent private collections.

On November 7th 2013 Bill Lowe gallery in Atlanta exhibited “America’s Most Acclaimed Encaustic Painter, Michael David.” I was initially impressed with the scale, technique, and medium of this exhibition.  It seemed that all David’s accolades were well-deserved, but upon further investigation there are obvious questions to the validity to these claims.


Michael David’s encaustic paintings are certainly the best without question in comparison to what usually passes as the encaustic craft.  David is a master of the encaustic, but Postmodernism separated the labor and precision of craft from art.  The time, scale, and medium of these “masterpieces” are not to be considered as part of the rubric as to what qualifies as exemplary art.  We may no longer judge artwork based on its craftsmanship.  Only if that craftsmanship is so terrible that it interferes with the concept.  In David’s work there is an overwhelming need to compliment its technique rather than the dialogue.


michael david 2

Maple Viewing at Takao (mid-16th century) by Kanō Hideyori (ja) is one of the earliest Japanese paintings to feature the lives of the common people.[1]


“Michael David may be the most innovative master of immediate surface since the Abstract Expressionists. He has acknowledged his debt to Abstract Expressionism, but he has transformed it.”-Donald Kuspit

The conversation that has been brought up readily in the David’s work is Abstract expressionism, and this comparison for most would be acceptable, but this is not completely accurate. David’s “Navigator” has a replica war airplane that appears to have crashed in the sea of wax on the surface. What is transformative about this? “Navigator” is clearly a wax illustration. The piece is static and placed the opposite of expression. This piece was the key to David’s codex. Often three-dimensional objects are placed on the surface glued in place by the encaustic medium. The proper term for these would be arranged artifacts, an impression of expression.

Surface & Sculpture

Painters with an affinity for surface manipulation often become stuck in-between painting and their aspirations to become completely three-dimensional.  These painters never accomplish more than an additive relief.   These reliefs are unsuccessful at painting and sculpture equally.   These artworks do not have the deliberation of space to become suitable sculpture, equally also do not meet the fluidity of paint. David’s is additive praxis with no other concern but to accumulate more.  More does not equal excellent.

 A bas-relief at Banteay Srei in Cambodia depicts Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa, the Abode of Lord Siva.

A bas-relief at Banteay Srei in Cambodia depicts Ravana shaking Mount Kailasa, the Abode of Lord Siva.

Thornton Dial & Academia

 The best piece of the exhibition was due to David’s new muse, a Thornton Dial inspired piece called “Ophelia”.  Again here we have a second key to David’s exhibition appropriation.  A fusion of derivative influences that are not so readily apparent of which Thornton Dial is the most recent.   This exhibition had all David’s muses present, Ukiyo-e Japanese composition and color, Abstract Expressionist technique, and Southern Folk art all academically-appropriated.  David is well aware of this and has credited those influences, however should this be accepted the way Donald Kuspit intends?

David’s abstract paintings renew immediacy; they reconstitute and strengthen, even apotheosize it. They raise it to a feverishly fresh intensity with their remarkable touch, indicating they are among the very best painterly abstractions made.”-Donald Kuspit

 Or should it be placed as cleverly disguised influences remade with encaustic mastery?  Not fresh. Not New. Well crafted.

michael david 6

Christopher HutchinsonChristopher Hutchinson is an Assistant Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and Archetype Art Gallery Owner in Atlanta, Ga. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama. He lived in Alabama for 10 years before moving to Atlanta in 2008. His installations mostly consist of black folded paper airplanes.

Learn more about Christopher and his work at Black Flight 144.

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Categories: Art, Postcolonial Thoughts, Writing


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  1. Happy Birthday to Creative Thresholds! | Melissa D. Johnston - December 10, 2013

    […] Artist and art critic Christopher Hutchinson looks at the work of encaustic artist Michael David in CT’s column Postcolonial Thoughts: Critique of Michael David’s “The One-Eyed Turtle and the Floating Sandalwood Log.&#8221… […]


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