Absolutely Fabulous

Denver is a little bit duller without the life and art of John Haeseler.

The full-blown portraits began with either photo-booth photo strips or snapshots that Haeseler photocopied and later altered with pencils, pastels and chalks. He then copied the altered image again and used it as the basis for a commercially done photo enlargement. Finally, he attached the image to a board or a stretched canvas and used that as the basis for expressive mixed-media paintings. The finished pieces were interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. So not only were they expressions of the art of identity, but they were also hermeneutical and conceptual.

The various methods Haeseler used for visual effects -- such as applying sections of painted gauze or spray-spattering the surface with paint -- were ideal for doing portraits not only of himself, but of other people as well. He definitely hit a home run with this idea, garnering many commissions for portraits in his signature style. People all over Denver -- and in Seattle, Sun Valley and Chicago, where he also exhibited -- had theirs done by Haeseler, especially artists. In many cases, Haeseler didn't wait for a go-ahead from a client, but would do a piece on a whim. Sometimes the unwitting subject would see it for the first time in a show and, amazingly, buy it.

In 1993, Hassel Haeseler hit the brick wall of Denver's economy and closed, leaving Haeseler in debt and without a venue. He subsequently showed at Rule and had his last solo at Mackey Gallery in 1995. Even though he was under various stresses, he'd begun to tackle his lifelong weight problem and lost a hundred pounds. His weight loss became the subject of that last show, which included an installation of ten ten-pound bags of potatoes. Haeseler often did art about food, including cans with Haeseler-made labels, tortillas rubber-stamped with the image of his face in the guise of the Madonna's, and, in that same vein, "The McDonna," in which he appears as a miraculous Lourdes-like vision endorsing the Big Mac he holds in his hand. Did I mention the imaginary deli "What a Friend We Have in Cheeses"?

Humor and a sense of irony were central to Haeseler's art and life. In response to being diagnosed with heart disease and type 2 diabetes some five years ago, Haeseler remarked, "Well, as usual, I've thought of everything." It was something he often said; strangely enough, it aptly sums up the circumstances of his death. Until a week or so before he died, Haeseler had been at University Hospital, near where his friends lived, but was transferred to a nursing facility in the remote northern suburbs because he seemed to be improving. Then, as the blizzard hit on December 20, he took an unexpected turn for the worse. Because of the storm, no one could get up to see him, and, with a breathing tube, he could no longer talk on the phone. So, as you can see, he'd thought of everything again.

During his twenty-year run as a studio artist, Haeseler produced a huge body of work; much of it is in his estate, with more in private collections. This means that doing a proper Haeseler retrospective -- which I wish had been done last year while he still could have enjoyed it -- would be eminently possible. But there are only a few spots in town big enough, since many Haeselers are huge and others are made up of multiple parts. I think it would be relevant right now, because much of Haeseler's work was ahead of its time and would relate perfectly to what's happening today. Not only that, but it's been so long since his art has been out that all of it will look absolutely fresh -- even to those of us who fondly remember it.

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