Wes Hempel and Jack Balas, two painters who share a studio and an affinity for narrative content, are now sharing the Robischon Gallery with their separate but equally impressive exhibits.
Hempel's paintings, on display in the front gallery, pointedly evoke art history, specifically seventeenth-century Dutch landscape art--but there's a feeling here for the work of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, too. At first Hempel's pieces look for all the world like reproductions of traditional pictures--but look again. The ably done "Biography Accident," an oil on canvas, displays an old master's technique, but there's one contemporary element at play. A male figure in the foreground, striking a pose suggestive of either contemplation or despair, is repeated in a scale model in the background. Though the man, like his smaller copy, is as traditionally rendered as the rest of this view of a bucolic hillside meadow, the repetition creates a surrealist element evocative of photography. The contradiction of the multiple men gives "Biography Accident" multiple meanings.
In another oil on canvas, "The Revision Assignment," Hempel displaces rather than repeats the key figures in the center of a photo-montage-like seascape. The group of men are found floating in the middle of the sky--again inviting endless interpretations.
In the back gallery, Balas's oil paintings--some on wood, some on unstretched canvas--demonstrate that this artist is more interested in resolving the designs of his compositions than he is in surrealism. Even so, the photography-inspired paintings tell various tales to those who view them.
Balas consciously apes advertising art, particularly posters. He's long incorporated written text into his paintings and photographs; here he's replaced the paragraphs that typically overlaid his images with disconnected letters, words and short phrases. But the text element still functions as it did in earlier pieces--organizing the picture's surface while adding content.
The nature of his surfaces interests Balas. "Rowing Not Drifting" features a realistically drawn jet flying across a large unstretched canvas. The canvas, which is attached to the wall by a hidden armature, looks wrinkled and slightly creased. Thin oil washes in a robust, rosy pink catch these imperfections and magnify them. Even the fuselage of the plane, also done in pink for a monochromatic effect, has been distorted by the subtle undulations of the canvas's surface. The incorporated text runs across the middle; the painting's title (suggested by a motto carved in an arch on the University of Northern Colorado campus) is spelled out in fanciful cursive letters reminiscent of sign painting, defining the surface. The jet occupies the space behind and beyond it.
In a very different picture, "Envelope," Balas attempts to convey the feeling of driving through the Midwest during a humid summer. Although this oil painting is slick and photographic, with images of trees and nudes rendered in cool greens and grays, there's still a steamy, sticky feel to it.
Supplementing Balas's paintings are many of the studies on which they were based. But these smaller pieces, done on panels instead of unstretched canvas, only suggest the final product. The artist clearly used the studies to work out--and work over--his concepts.
Given the close relationship between Hempel and Balas, it's not surprising to find that both artists are inspired by the same things, or to see that they like to tell stories through their paintings. What's remarkable is how their similar concerns result in such different pieces: murky and contemplative for Hempel, vibrant and strongly graphic for Balas.