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.
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.
Reality + Imagination, a lively group show that starts the fall season at William Havu Gallery, also features work that balances tradition with relevance. But while these artists were brought together because of their shared interest in figural and representational imagery, they all also share an advanced level of technical prowess.
In many ways, Reality + Imagination is not so much a group show as a series of exhibits devoted to individual artists. Each of the five painters is given an autonomous section of the gallery, made discrete by movable walls. The work of the sixth featured artist, Texas sculptor Stephen Daly, is scattered throughout the show.
Two Daly sculptures flank the gallery's entranceway. On one side is "The Collector," a silver-patinated bronze-and-aluminum casting in the form of an abstract and simplified figure holding -- or perhaps attached to -- a tray covered with small sculptures. The figure is essentially formed from a cylinder with a simply detailed head on which ridges stand in for hair. In "Woman With Mirror," which stands on the other side, Daly takes the same approach to the figure, but this time he makes the hair with squiggles of bronze welded on the bronze cast. Finished in a delicious yellow patina, the figure faces away from the viewer, but her face can be seen in the highly polished bronze mirror that she holds before her. A third Daly sculpture -- his most important piece in the show -- is installed out back in the sculpture garden, where it looks great. "Daphne," a cast and fabricated bronze finished with an oil glaze in a verdigris color, captures the mythical Daphne as she turns into a tree.
Just past the Dalys at the entranceway hangs recent work by Luis Eades, an old master of Colorado painting. Born in Spain to British parents in 1923, Eades came to this country in 1949. Starting in the '50s, he taught painting for almost a decade at the University of Texas at Austin; in 1961 he left to accept a job in the fine arts department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he remained until his retirement in 1987. But while Eades retired from teaching, he did not retire as an artist. In fact, the septuagenarian created many of the pieces seen here specifically for this show, assembling discordant and unlikely combinations of images.
In "Toys," an oil on canvas, Eades captures a surrealistic landscape. In the foreground, a mockingbird perches on top of a cactus; other cacti are seen mid-ground and on a hill in the distance. The hill is the first oddball element, since it's made of a pile of discarded dolls. Another weird addition is a ghostly portrait of a woman that floats in the sky, its strange effect heightened by the traditional representational style Eades has used.
Also using traditional stylistic techniques for non-traditional ends are several Eades paintings that recall and reassemble ancient art. In "Fiddler," an oil on canvas, a basically hieratic composition has been created by confining the face of an ancient Buddha sculpture in a horizontal rectangle; the Buddha's mouth floats over a larger rectangle. The bottom right of the composition shows a bird on a cactus; on the left is a skeleton playing a violin -- or, more correctly, a fiddle.
The center space is devoted to fanatically detailed figure paintings by Irene Delka McCray, a Colorado artist who also spends time in Santa Fe. In "Surrender," an oil on canvas, an old woman and an old man are lying on a bed of plantlike forms while, at the bottom, it looks as though the ocean tide is coming in. Both the figures and the subject -- their impending death -- are pretty creepy. That's the same description I'd give to "Inner Force," which shows an aging hippie couple from above. The man and woman are nude, stuck in a parched desert landscape, and they look out at the viewer in horror.
In the window space are small paintings by Lori Nelson, a young artist from Salt Lake City. These pieces imitate the old masters, even to the point of having elaborately carved gold-leaf frames, but their subjects are contemporary. In "Last Fall" a woman in a blue dress, holding fruit in her hands, talks with a small child while a man falls from a tree in the background, adding a humorous element. The surfaces of Nelson's paintings are particularly interesting: They seem to have been heavily glazed with tinted varnish, which gives them an antique look.
Under the mezzanine is a large group of figural abstractions by Erica Daborn, an English-born artist who lives in California. Her paintings recall underground comics in style, and, like that art form, they incorporate disturbing images. While all of her paintings are beautifully done, "Networking," a huge oil on Masonite, is clearly the most important. For this piece, Daborn has arrayed a line of four female figures across the canvas. The figures are linked by cords or wires attached to their heads, but each stands on her own pedestal, hiding her face behind a mask, and each holds a tray with a pair of lips on it. This is a biting commentary on opportunism, with the four women interconnected yet completely isolated.
The final artist in Reality + Imagination is Celeste Rehm, a professor in CU's fine-arts department, where she's worked since 1973. The Rehm paintings installed on the mezzanine are beautifully painted -- but absolutely hideous. Rehm is clearly an expert in her craft, so perhaps it was her intention to create perfectly done parodies of hideous paintings. If so, she's succeeded.
So has gallery director Bill Havu, who's known for his raucous and unlikely selections of artists. For Reality + Imagination, he put together artists who have nothing more in common than their interest in recognizable subject matter. But by giving all of the painters their own clearly defined space, he's made it work.
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