“You don’t squeeze paint out of a cold tube,” says Ventura County contemporary artist Sylvia Torres. “You melt your block of paint onto your hot palette.” She is describing the process of working in encaustic — literally meaning “to burn in”— the oldest known painting medium, predating oils and frescoes. A process that requires the constant heating and cooling of layers of paint bound by beeswax and resin, melted onto a hot plate, it has become Torres’ medium of choice since she was first drawn to it several years ago. After many failed attempts to master the medium, Torres, a California native, took an encaustic workshop in New York that changed her artistic direction and ultimately led her to combine the ancient painting method with her contemporary style.

“It is very process-oriented,” she offers. Each painting consists of an impressive 20 to 30 layers that are applied with natural brushes (synthetic brushes would singe.) Once dry — usually within 30 minutes — the layers are scraped off to expose what lies beneath. In “Cognitive Dream,” Torres reveals layers of determined brushstrokes in intense ochre, burnt and raw sienna, mustard, off-whites and other rich earth hues — her preferred color choices. Often, the waxy layers partially conceal materials Torres incorporates, such as Japanese rice paper, metallic leaf, pages from old books, etc., that subtly resurface with this process.

Torres’ paintings, comparable in technique to the bold and deliberate style of the abstract expressionists, ironically convey a feeling of quiet reflection in spite of the vigorous application and removal of paint. One piece hangs 40 inches tall and delicately confronts you with whippings of creamy blacks, greens and browns, exposed after the top, translucent layers have been scuffed. Surprisingly, the end result of such a tangibly aggressive process is deeply ethereal. “The layers are a form of communication, of memories or of past civilizations — one on top of the other,” she says.

It is no surprise that the Asian aesthetic of Pure’s decor is echoed throughout Sylvia’s meditative work. From her use of Japanese calligraphy characters to the repeated enso— the Japanese word meaning “circle” and symbolizing enlightenment, elegance, and strength — Torres’ encaustic paintings convey a lyricism that is traditional in the Eastern culture. Appropriately, many of her paintings use a sphere or a circle as a means of communicating what she calls “earthly meditation.”

“Within my paintings, there are fragments of memories,” Sylvia remarks, “something that tethers heaven and earth.” Indeed, unabashed brushstrokes and bold incisions in “Resplendent Earth,” a regal painting loosely based on a landscape, suggest a contemplative dialogue between the physical and the spiritual.

It was this contemplative aspect of Sylvia’s work that prompted Pure’s owner Jayme Dwyer to ask her to exhibit her paintings for the store’s grand opening. The apparent drawback of having an art exhibit at a retail store has no bearing in this case, the fit is undeniable; Torres’ encaustic paintings are so well-suited for the store that they seem to belong in it, offering an unequivocal, sensual harmony that promises to make a lasting impression.    
Sylvia Torres on exhibit at Pure Life and Home, 576 E. Main St. Ventura, 641-2500, www.sylviatorres.com.