Different Realities

Realism gets a vigorous workout at Robischon.

Surely the most persistent current in painting is the representation of recognizable things, particularly the figure. In one form or another, representational painting has been around for about 15,000 years, ever since the cave paintings in France and Spain were created. Things went along fine after that, with countless landscapes, nudes and still-life scenes being painted by countless artists. Then, a little over a century ago, representation was increasingly pushed aside by its two chief rivals, which attacked it from opposite standpoints. On one side, it was supplanted by abstraction, which made hand-done versions of reality seem quaint and old-fashioned. On the other, there was the rise of photography, which did precisely the same thing.

Despite these very effective challenges to the realistic styles, representational art has held on, and I'm not just referring to the large neo-traditional sector that dominates the art market. No, I'm talking about the many examples of genuinely contemporary styles that are based on the depiction of exterior reality. Representational painting -- and painting in general -- has been gaining ground lately after being declared dead some years ago, and it's now seen in exhibits around the country and around town.

The Robischon Gallery is presenting three shows dedicated to contemporary realism. First up, in the spaces on either side of the main entrance and partly visible through the gallery's show windows, is Plot Twists, an economical solo of easel-sized paintings by well-known Colorado painter Wes Hempel.

"detour," by Jerry Kunkel, oil on canvas.
"detour," by Jerry Kunkel, oil on canvas.
"Captivating Passage," by Wes Hempel, oil on canvas.
"Captivating Passage," by Wes Hempel, oil on canvas.

Hempel's work is familiar to many because he exhibits frequently, and not only here at Robischon, where he's had six -- count 'em, six -- solos since the early 1990s, but also in museums and art centers across the country. Hempel came to painting relatively late in life and is essentially self-taught, though he surely learned a lot from his partner, artist Jack Balas, who also shows at Robischon. Originally a writer and poet, Hempel took up painting in 1991 at the age of 38. He was a quick study and, with his famous and iconic images of floating houses in the landscape, a big commercial success.

Plot Twists includes one of those classic floating house paintings, but most of the show is made up of allegorical compositions starring a handsome young man pictured in different poses and various historic settings. Sometimes there are overt references to antiquity, such as architectural or sculptural fragments, but even Hempel's versions of nature, like the mountains and the skies, have an antique character to them.

Like many contemporary painters, Hempel employed photography in the preparatory work for these pieces, combining photos from books of sixteenth- to nineteenth-century old-master paintings with ones of the young man taken by Hempel or Balas. These photos stand in for the preliminary sketches of the paintings.

The role of the photos is easy to see, and their character is retained in the finished paintings. The inherent flatness of the photographs is preserved, as is the clear separation between the background scene and the young man in the foreground, coming as they do from different photos. This separation heightens the surrealism of the imaginary universe Hempel meticulously lays out in these hyper-realistic paintings.

Ahead, as we enter Robischon, is a major Hempel painting: "Captivating Passage," an oil on canvas. In the center is the young man, dressed in a sport coat and khakis with a shirt and tie. He is standing on a low white marble wall, his right hand on his head, engrossed in a book. The scene is set high on a rampart, with the hills falling below and the cloudy gray-white sky filling most of the frame. On either side of him are figures -- a partly nude male and a draped family -- that evoke classical antiquity in their poses and dress. The composition is perfect, being essentially symmetrical even though the single figure in the bottom left has been drafted into balancing the larger family group on the bottom right.

Hempel's paintings always have a narrative component, but meanings are ambiguous and never explained by the artist. But so what? They're not hard to appreciate, and the general meanings are conveyed even if the specific ones are hard to understand. For example, the young man has a spirit of aloofness. He's in his own world, completely disconnected from his surroundings -- and therefore disconnected from us, the viewers.

Hempel's technical skill is incredible, and his renderings are right on the mark. He's able to accurately impersonate the styles of the old masters and at the same time create his own brand of contemporary realism, reconciling all of it in the same painting.

Every one of his oil-on-canvas paintings is a knockout, but I particularly liked "The Elders," which is closely related to "Captivating Passage." Here the young man is seen in repose, sitting at the base of the marble wall. Behind him, peering over the wall, are two older men dressed in Renaissance-era garments, contemplating with concern the younger man's apparent alienation. Another compelling Hempel is "Objectivity," showing the young man suspended in the clouds, crouching and looking down at the unseen world below the bottom of the canvas.

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