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.

Just beyond Hempel's works, in the center rooms at Robischon, is Chinoiserie, a solo featuring Christopher Pelley's take on realism in contemporary painting. This is the first time Pelley, a New York artist who also uses photography for his preliminary work, has been the subject of a Denver show. As implied by the title, the Pelley exhibit addresses the influence of China, rather than China itself, and the paintings are a record of his life in New York's Chinatown, where he lived for many years.

The Pelleys have a pop-art quality and are especially reminiscent of the work of Larry Rivers, in particular the juxtaposition of brushy abstract color fields with highly detailed realistic images. But they also relate to the work of Rauschenberg, notably the pieces that incorporate found objects, like "Larger Chinoiserie (Red Bucket)," which includes a flawless rendition in oil of a red plastic bucket as well as an actual red plastic dustpan and brush. These mundane articles are surrounded by images of traditional porcelain vessels scattered across the canvas. Presumably the model for the painted bucket and the actual dustpan and brush were made, like the porcelains, in China. These identifiable objects, which are vaguely arrayed in a still-life presentation, float on top of a series of expressively painted passages in red and yellow. And just for fun, Pelley puts a cloud-dotted sky up in the right top corner.

Most of the Pelleys have a lot of red -- a color long associated with China -- but "Large Chinoiserie (Black Lacquer)" is mostly black, which, come to think of it, is another color associated with China. In this painting, Pelley places fruit, flowers, chopsticks and bowls in an all-over pattern on a scrumptious and thickly painted black field. As suggested by the subtitle, it does recall decorative lacquerwork, but it also reminded me of wallpaper and the work of Fred Tomaselli, neither of which is a shortcoming.

The last of the three solos, short stories, installed in the Viewing Room Gallery, features recent work by respected Boulder painter Jerry Kunkel. The artist came to the area some thirty years ago to take a job teaching art at the University of Colorado. Kunkel's work has been continuously exhibited in the region since then.

In these very new paintings, Kunkel uses oils on wood and, as he has for many years, looks to pop imagery -- in particular, advertising and commercial displays -- as a stylistic source for his work. Not unlike Hempel and Pelley, Kunkel employs photography as a stage in the creation of his paintings, which tell enigmatic stories, some as long and elaborate as novels.

The epic "stan" series is the most obvious case in point. The group of 36 paintings, hung in a grid six wide and six high, looks at everyday existence as a mundane yet intense experience. The paintings depict Stan, his friends, his lovers and his breakfast foods. The weird little scenes are arranged in a sequence to be read as though the paintings were pages in a book. The story, for no apparent reason, seems to get more tension-filled as it progresses from left to right and from top to bottom. Honestly, though, it's completely unclear what is happening to Stan, or even who Stan is, because Kunkel indicates that he's a fictional Everyman.

Using similar ideas, Kunkel did 25 larger paintings of still-life images, both real and imaginary, accompanied by text reproduced in laser prints that may or may not relate to the images with which it's paired. Space limitations dictated that only a small selection of these paintings be on display in the Robischon show.

To the right of the "stan" paintings is the large oil-on-canvas "detour," which looks like a poster for a 1940s Hollywood movie and is one of only two large paintings in the show. In the foreground are a couple in love: a man -- Stan, as it happens -- and a woman embracing and caressing each other. Behind them is what looks like the Brooklyn Bridge. Set at the surface of the picture, defining the picture plane, are bars of type and a full-color image of a Santa Fe Railroad streamliner. The postcard image of the train looks like it's been tacked onto the rest of the painting, though it hasn't.

Hempel, Pelley and Kunkel are all doing essentially the same things. They're all working with that age-old standby, recognizable imagery. Plus, they all employ photography as an early stage in their paintings -- in a kind of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em spirit, I'm sure. However, it's undeniable that each has his distinctive style, and their respective pieces have completely individual characters.

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