George Billis Gallery is pleased to present the gallery's second solo exhibition of work by Wes Hempel. The exhibition features the artist's recent oil paintings with an artist reception on March 1st and runs from February 22nd through March 29th, 2014.
For decades, Wes Hempel has been committed to re-envisioning the depiction of masculinity in contemporary art. By setting psychologically acute portraits of modern-day men against backdrops appropriated from such disparate sources as neoclassical history painting and Dutch golden age landscapes, the artist’s works forge provocative dialogues between past and present.
The current body of work continues this longstanding practice of combining art historical elements with contemporary figures. The paintings are linked to the past both in their subject matter and their surface qualities. Even when they aren't quoting specific art historical references, the paintings have a traditional look, as if they were produced in another era. The figures, upon close inspection, however, reveal that these are indeed contemporary work. Hempel has actively cultivated this traditional look for a number of reasons. One of his ongoing projects is a re-visioning of what art history might have looked like had homosexuality not been vilified.
Hempel writes of his work, “a walk through any major museum will reveal paintings that depict or legitimate only certain kinds of experience. Despite the good intentions of critical theorists questioning the validity of the canon, paintings of the old masters on the walls of museums like the Met, the Louvre, Rijksmuseum still have a certain cache. They're revered not just for their technique but because they enshrine our collective past experience. Of course, it's a selected past that gets validated. Conspicuously absent to me as a gay man is my own story. By presenting contemporary males as objects of desire in familiar looking art historical settings, I'm able to imagine (and allow viewers to imagine) a past that includes rather than excludes gay experience-and ride the coattails, as it were, of art history's imprimatur.”
Quite a few of Hempel’s paintings are working on that level (some rather playfully). For example, the piece titled Auction is an easily recognizable rendition of Jean-Leon Gerome's (1824-1904) painting Slave Auction (c.1884), except the artist moved the setting outdoors. And where in the original a nude woman is offered for sale to the crowd, the auctioneer now offers a rope-bound male angel. Similarly, in the piece titled A Breakfast , he has taken the setting of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's (1839-1912) painting Silver Favourites (1903) and replaced the three beautiful maidens with four nude young men. The paintings Breather and Return of Spring (revisions of a Vermeer and Bouguereau, respectively) offer similar exchanges.
Christopher Harrity writes of Hempel’s work, “joining the mythic allusions and technical fluency of classical art together with the ideas of personal narrative and social content of postmodern art, Hempel’s paintings explore the divide between the ancient and modern, reason and passion, august ideals and the profoundly individual. The artist recasts modern male figures in historical and culturally iconographic settings, provoking both a rethinking of assumed narratives and mythic themes and inviting a similar reconsideration of contemporary life, masculinity, and sexual norms. Hempel’s societal investigations are rendered in sensuously modeled flesh tones, gleaming marble surfaces, and the immersive depth of Arcadian landscapes — proving as visually seductive as they are conceptually rigorous.”