Go Figure

The human form continues to provide inspiration for contemporary artists.

Capturing the human form has a very long tradition in the visual arts, going back over 12,000 years. And despite the rise of abstraction and its progeny a century ago, artists are still drawn to the figure as a subject redolent with possibilities.

Here in Denver, a number of galleries have chosen contemporary figure studies for their fall openers. Among the most compelling is Wes Hempel: Fictional Accounts, an elegant solo show that currently fills three of the front spaces at Robischon Gallery. One of the region's premier contemporary figural painters, Hempel lives in Berthoud; his work, however, is exhibited not only in Colorado, but from coast to coast. A self-taught painter, he received his formal education in writing, earning a master's degree in English, of all things, in 1988. But by then he was already making a name for himself as a painter. His idiosyncratic pictures -- a signature type features a house floating above the landscape -- are carried out with breathtaking technical skill, as he openly pays homage to the old masters.

Also important to Hempel is the work of his partner, Jack Balas, another well-known artist represented by Robischon. Like Balas, Hempel sometimes incorporates words into his paintings. The two also share models -- or at least the same taste in handsome, well-built young men. In Hempel's paintings, the men are usually dressed (although a few have their shirts off) and strike casual poses, but the effect is every bit as erotic as Balas's beefcake photos, in which the models are nude, or might as well be. A key difference between the two artists -- among a raft of others -- is the way Hempel creates an icy, palpable distance between the subject and the viewer. The models in these paintings may be appealing, ordinary guys next door -- if extremely fine examples of that type -- but they put the viewer off. Even when they appear to be looking out, they are actually looking right past you.

"Fiddler," by Luis Eades, oil on canvas.
"Fiddler," by Luis Eades, oil on canvas.
"Hero Complex," by Wes Hempel, oil on canvas.
"Hero Complex," by Wes Hempel, oil on canvas.

Details

Through November 3, 303-298-7788

Reality + Imagination
Through October 27
William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street
303-893-2360

Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street

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Immediately inside Robischon's entrance is a fabulous painting that illustrates Hempel's meticulously constructed sense of distance. Named "Hero Complex," it's a large, horizontal oil on canvas that has a sense of monumentality appropriate to the title. In the foreground, a man sits on white marble pavement, leaning back against a low, neoclassical wall made of the same white marble; ominous gray clouds hover in the background. The predominantly pale, subtle colors used for the marble pavement and wall, along with similar tones employed for the sky, create a light-filled field on which the darker, full-colored figure stands out. He is dressed in the preppy standard of light-colored slacks and shirt, a dark sportcoat and a deep-red tie; there's a leather briefcase by his side, propped against the wall. The image is of a young man on his way up the corporate ladder. But a few other elements add a narrative content that contributes an air of melancholy, particularly considering the title. In spite of his seated pose, the man holds a baseball bat as though he were about to take a swing; lying on the pavement, partly hidden by a shadow, is a baseball.

The combination of elements, from briefcase to baseball, suggests a number of possible interpretations, which Hempel encourages. According to the artist, a painting succeeds if viewers are able to attach their own stories to it. But two things will be obvious to just about everyone who sees "Hero Complex," and surely both were intended and imposed by Hempel. First, there's a wistful sense concerning the man's lost boyhood and his abandoned youthful ambitions, both conveyed and underscored by his taciturn gaze. Second, the painting reveals something less magical: a man stuck in a Peter Pan fantasy, refusing to grow up, refusing to give up his childhood toys.

The same model appears in "Repair Department I," another monumental oil on canvas. This time, he's sitting in a chair reading a book, his feet surrounded by piles of more books.

The next space features paintings in which Hempel has copied details of historical works and added text to give them new meanings. In "At a Certain Point You Ask the Right Question," an oil on canvas, the title is written across the surface of the painting in widely spaced white block letters. The scene behind the writing, inspired by a baroque painting, depicts a group of three robe-wearing figures involved in deep conversation.

The final Hempel area groups paintings that connect the baroque pieces to the heroic portraits seen in the first section. For these works, Hempel places contemporary young men in the foreground, setting them against a dark background inspired by romantic European landscape paintings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As opposed to the portraits of males such as "Hero Complex," in these paintings the scenery, rather than the figure, dominates the composition.

On one level, Hempel's work is traditional and conventional, his painterly techniques right out of the nineteenth century. But on another, his work delivers ironic and contradictory messages, making it crisp, cogent and relevant -- relentlessly addressing the concept of the alienation of the individual.

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