"S(weep)," by Jack Balas, oil on canvas.
"S(weep)," by Jack Balas, oil on canvas.

Changing Scenes

I'm not a big fan of collaborative works. Art is such an individualistic thing, it repels cooperation. Almost every piece I've seen of this type has failed to come together. But having said this, I've got to point out that JACK BALAS and WES HEMPEL at Robischon Gallery has a big section of work done in tandem by Balas and Hempel that's mostly successful.

The reason why is pretty simple: In every case, Balas topped off Hempel's paintings, thus transforming them into Balas paintings. The show also includes separate sections for each artist, which makes it easy to notice how subtle the aesthetic shift is between the dual paintings and those by Balas alone. The Hempels, meanwhile, are emphatically distinct from the other types of work.

Balas and Hempel live together in Berthoud and have been partners for more than twenty years. Balas has a BFA and an MFA from Northern Illinois University; Hempel is self-taught as an artist, having studied writing while getting his bachelor's degree from California State University and a master's degree from the University of Colorado.


JACK BALAS and WES HEMPEL and Constructions and Stoppers

Through November 5, Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 303-298- 7788

Constructions and Stoppers
Through November 12, Sandy Carson Gallery, 760 Santa Fe Drive, 303- 573-8585

The duo's collaborative paintings begin as compositions Hempel abandoned. Believing the works impossible to resolve, he turns them over to Balas, who does what he will to them. Though the two artists share something of the same approach to subject matter -- both being fond of idealized versions of young men -- their way of applying paint is completely different. Hempel fills in all the details, and his surfaces are smooth; Balas has a very sketchy and expressive method with lots of open spaces left in his paintings, creating an unfinished quality.

These differences make a perfect match when it comes to the cooperative efforts. Balas handles the Hempels in various ways, at times using them as guides to the arrangement of the elements he adds, at others using them as little more than a blank canvas. Even though the Hempels are underneath, they can still be seen through Balas's spare markings and sketches.

The first of the combination paintings visitors will notice is "Night Sky," which is large and faces the gallery's front entrance. In this painting, the Hempel portion is a tightly detailed rear view of a man wearing a business suit and standing on books laid end to end like tiles on the ground; in the distance is a sky filled with fluffy clouds. Balas added small depictions of young jocks with their shirts off, placing all but one of them around the feet of the main figure; the last little guy perches on the businessman's shoulder. Though both Hempel and Balas base a lot of their work on photographs, Balas preserves the photographic character in his figures, making them look almost like photomontages. Hempel's figures, however, are painterly, often recalling the style of the Old Masters.

Around the corner in the small side gallery is a group of Hempel's work without Balas's input. These paintings have a whiff of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century Dutch and English landscapes, though Hempel adds a twist here and there. One of the most famous of these is the floating house, a subject he's been addressing for many years. In "Corot's Library," for example, an old-fashioned manor house floats above a traditional landscape.

There's a much larger selection of Balas's own work installed in the spacious gallery to the left. These paintings have a neo-pop feeling, with Balas juxtaposing recognizable things, such as a wall clock and a flag, with his favorite topic, good-looking young guys. Many of these paintings are intriguing, but the real standout is "(S)weep," which is more thoroughly fleshed out -- pardon the pun -- than the others. A completely naked young man is sweeping the ground with a broom; on the ground, sketchy monumental heads stand in for boulders, while in the sky, ghostly figures are hidden in the clouds.

JACK BALAS and WES HEMPEL is a strong outing for the pair. And while it might be hard to find specific political content in their work, it's there. The civil rights of gays are under attack by the religious right and their hatchet men -- and women -- in the Republican Party. (Don't forget that Berthoud, where Balas and Hempel live, is in Marilyn Musgrave's congressional district.) In this context, we can only conclude that the two painters are promoting the cause of freedom by creating art together as a same-sex couple and by courageously incorporating homoeroticism, something that's difficult for many people to take.

Sandy Carson Gallery is hosting two solos that are installed together in the front spaces. On the walls are contemporary representational paintings by Sarah McKenzie that comprise a show called Constructions; on the floor are conceptual sculptures by Virginia Folkestad that form the exhibit Stoppers.

McKenzie used to live in Colorado -- and she might move back -- but for now she's teaching at Ohio's prestigious Cleveland Institute. Her earlier work delved into the topic of sprawl as seen from aerial views, and there are a handful of these paintings in the show. Her more recent creations are close-up views of houses under construction. Two of the largest are "Build Up" and "Frame"; in these pieces, McKenzie focuses on the skeletal wood beams of the unfinished structures that, at first glance, seem to suggest constructivist abstractions. Pushing that abstract effect even further are the related studies, in which details of the larger paintings are worked out in a smaller format.

The Folkestad sculptures that make up Stoppers are all similar and all titled "Stoppers." The sculptures take the form of gigantic eggs that are scattered throughout the spaces in the front of the gallery. The shapes are made of concrete, with a steel arch emerging from the top of each; the ends are cracked and open, with tangles of braided rope spilling out.

Folkestad, who has a BFA from Metropolitan State College of Denver, became well known locally for her ambitious installations that subtly indict domestic life from a feminist standpoint. That might be true of "Stoppers," too, but it's hard to see it. I suppose you could argue that the eggs symbolize shelter, while the ropes suggest the connections between people -- but that seems quite a stretch.

It's understandable that Folkestad has turned from installation to sculpture: Installations are more work, and someone might actually buy a sculpture. Nonetheless, I do miss those incredible total designs she did during the 1990s, when her ambitious pieces took over big chunks of Edge and Spark. One of my favorites was her enormous mechanized work at the Arvada Center, "Musical Chairs."

The two different approaches used in Constructions and Stoppers allow these exhibits to preserve their individuality, a perfect situation for two solos.

The Broadmoor Academy, which became known as the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center School in 1936, played a very big role in the art history of Colorado. Founded in 1919, the school flourished in the 1920s, Œ30s and Œ40s, attracting notable faculty and enthusiastic students, then gradually disappeared in the 1950s, when it was slowly absorbed by the tiny art department of nearby Colorado College. The story of what happened involves the Red Scare and the left-leaning politics of many of the artists working there amid the conservative climate of the Springs. More than anything else, these political problems -- and not aesthetic ones -- ultimately doomed the fabled place.

Though the school was essentially gone fifty years ago, many of the students who trained there stayed in Colorado and continued to influence the course of art in the state. One artist who fills this bill is Lew Tilley, who died earlier this month at the age of 84. Born in Georgia in 1921, Tilley studied at a variety of institutions before finishing up with a BFA at the University of Georgia in 1942, where he trained with Jean Charlot, later the director of the CSFACS. After graduating, Tilley began master's-level work at the CSFACS, studying with legendary director Boardman Robinson and Adolf Dehn. He completed his program in 1945 and began teaching there, remaining part of the faculty until 1951. In 1965, he started teaching art and graphics at Colorado State University in Pueblo, when it was still called Southern Colorado State College. He did this for more than twenty years while also painting, taking photographs, writing prose and poetry, and making short films.

Tilley's painting style of the 1940s was regionalist and showed the influence of Robinson and his earlier mentor, Charlot. From Robinson he took the idea of using many figures to tell a story, from Charlot the squat proportions he employed to carry out those figures. But the '40s and '50s were revolutionary times for art, and Tilley was swept up in current events. Like most of his generation, he abandoned regionalism and became a modernist, concentrating on surrealism and abstraction. Throughout his long career, he was relentlessly experimental. In the 1980s, when he was in his sixties, Tilley began doing computer-generated prints and drawings.

Too bad there are no plans for a Tilley memorial show. I know I'm not the only one who would love to see it.


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