Facts and Fantasies

Painters Jack Balas and Wes Hempel are fixtures on Denver's art scene despite residing in what might be called the Outer Mongolia of the Front Range--the sleepy northern Colorado town of Berthoud. To a great extent, their in-town fame is the product of the enthusiastic support they've received from an institution at the scene's epicenter, the prestigious Robischon Gallery in bustling LoDo. The current Robischon exhibit, The Marriage of History and Fiction--essentially two solo shows with Balas featured up front and Hempel in the back--marks the fifth time the gallery has displayed Balas's work and the fourth time it's gone after Hempel's. Not bad for a couple of guys from Berthoud--especially considering that Robischon's schedule is crowded with exhibitions by such international art stars as Robert Motherwell and Christo.

Balas and Hempel live and work together and sometimes even look for inspiration in the same semi-nude artist models. But each takes an explicitly personal approach to making art.

Born in Chicago in 1955, Balas began his formal art training in the 1970s, studying design at the Illinois Institute of Technology and receiving his BFA and MFA from Northern Illinois University. He first exhibited locally in 1986 in the Lucy Lippard-curated Image Wars at Denver's long-defunct Center for Idea Art. That show was a milestone for contemporary art in Denver, not only because it was a hotbed of political artists like Balas, who had something to say about the issues of the day, but also because of Lippard's stewardship. The New York critic and art historian, then a part-time resident of Boulder, was the reigning maharanee of the local political-correctness movement in the fine arts. She proved it by exercising her prerogative as curator to throw out of the show a very politically incorrect piece by another artist--the right move, since the work romanticized the Nazis.

Lippard selected Balas for Image Wars because he was part of a emerging movement of artists who added narrative content to their work by combining the written word with a variety of recognizable images. These artists were working against the formalism that had dominated several decades' worth of painting, and they violated the tenets of formalism in three distinct ways: Their work was not abstract; there was a specific message to it; and words were included to enhance meaning. But though Balas's works carried political messages, their content was intentionally ambiguous. Unlike the artist with the pro-Nazi piece, it was sometimes hard to tell just what Balas was saying. (Not surprisingly, Lippard left him alone.)

All of this is still true of Balas's paintings more than ten years later. But he has shown remarkable progress, even in the two years since his last Robischon show. The eight paintings that occupy the large front room at Robischon indicate a major stylistic breakthrough for Balas. And though not unrelated to his earlier work, the paintings in The Marriage of History and Fiction more consciously reflect the influence of pop culture, or--more to the point--pop art.

Balas enjoys a parallel career as a photographer and has long used photographs for inspiration. And in these new paintings, he not only continues to refer to photographs, but he also flaunts the references, painting expressionistic copies of his own black-and-white prints. In the oil on canvas "Pictograph: the Mercator Projection," Balas shows a large male buffalo in profile against the suggestion of the sky at sunset. The animal's fur, horns and snout have been expressively rendered while still retaining a flat, photographic quality. Along the bottom of the frame is what looks like a hand-painted contact sheet featuring black-and-white renditions of idealized young men, their heads cropped out of the frame. The men are shown stripped to the waist. Some are seen at work, like the one who holds a pair of garden clippers.

The paintings of the young men across the bottom of "Pictograph" actually come from a black-and-white photo series titled "Studio Men AKA the Greek Alphabet," an album of which is available for viewing on request at the gallery. Each photo places a young man before a white ground; the men strike demure poses, either sitting or standing. Balas has named the models according to the letters of the Greek alphabet, and most of these photos are only mildly erotic--more tame than an underwear ad on TV. But Balas does get wild with one particular model. His shots of "Delta," a beefy blonde who glares defiantly at the camera, have an erotic edge not seen in most of the others. Particularly interesting are the shot of Delta's back covered with chocolate sauce and the one in which he paints his own chest white with whipped cream.

Balas also uses paintings of photographs in the knock-out oil and acrylic "Dead Reckoning." On a large expanse of unstretched canvas, Balas has painted three red vertical bars and divided them with two white ones. Despite the vertical orientation and the fact that there are no stars to go along with the stripes, "Dead Reckoning" instantly suggests the American flag. In place of the stars, Balas has created a checkerboard of images copied from historical photos of World War II and Vietnam War-era soldiers. The soldiers are nude or semi-nude and are often seen in groups. Much like the depictions of the Greek-alphabet boys, these images convey an erotic content--even if the original photographers didn't intend it.

Another popular subject for Balas is animals--though their erotic content is thankfully minimal. In addition to the buffalo in "Pictograph," the Robischon show features the artist's renderings of an Appaloosa stallion in profile and an engaging picture of a calf that looks like a magazine ad from the 1940s.

Hempel's oil paintings fill the back spaces at Robischon and provide a thoroughly different perspective. Born in El Monte, California, in 1953, Hempel trained to be a writer and poet at California State University at Northridge and at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He turned to painting only after reaching his thirties. Though self-taught, he quickly became accomplished and is today one of the most technically facile painters around. In fact, it's no stretch to say that Hempel paints like his mentors--the old masters.

But in contrast to his technical peers in the realm of contemporary traditional painting, Hempel is no antiquarian. He gives his landscapes a surrealist twist, often through the use of unlikely compositions. In many of the paintings at Robischon, for instance, figures turn away from the viewer. "The Children's Secret," an impressive oil on panel, shows three little boys in old-fashioned dress standing on a rock outcropping. We see them only from the rear, because they're looking away from us at the ominous gray sky that provides the painting's background.

"The Long Walk Back" also features a figure who turns his back on us: a man in a suit, dwarfed by a verdant landscape and a gorgeous, cloud-filled sky and walking a tightrope. The easel-sized "Study for Restoration Story" clearly expresses the differences between the work of Hempel and his partner Balas. We recognize the figure whose back is to us--it's Balas's Delta. But Hempel's idiosyncratic approach leaves poor Delta more enigmatic than erotic.

Of course, enigma is the lingua franca of surrealism, a powerful dose of which pervades Hempel's portion of the show. What, for example, are we to make of "The Gift of Time," an important-looking oil that shows a man with a house where his head should be, conversing with Hempel's old friend, artist John Wilson? Equally cryptic, despite a written explanation from Hempel, is "The Marriage of History and Fiction," the painting from which the exhibit takes its name. In the center of the picture is a flat boat on a river. Sitting in the middle of the boat is a formally dressed woman whom Hempel identifies as Lady Jane Grey as painted by the nineteenth-century French artist Paul Delaroche. Standing next to her is Huck Finn, allegedly derived from a nineteenth-century painting by Johann Friedrich Overbeck--though, judging from Balas's photo album, surely also inspired by one of the Greek lettermen.

Perhaps it's not so astounding that Balas and Hempel have set out in different artistic directions despite their close personal and professional associations. But the fact that neither artist in The Marriage of History and Fiction suffers in comparison to the other? Now, that's a surprise.

The Marriage of History and Fiction, through May 3 at the Robischon Gallery, 1740 Wazee Street, 298-7788.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia