ART I N REVIEW
Walt Wooten: D:NA Demographic: Native American, Wadle Galleries LTD, 128 W. Palace Ave., 983-9219, through April; Wes Hempel: Model Citizens, LewAllen Galleries Downtown, 125 W. Palace Avenue, 988-8997, through May 1 How do you prefer your men — buff and burly or robed and regal? Such descriptions of the male figures in galleries across from each other on West Palace Avenue are apt. LewAllen Galleries Downtown offers a one-person show of paintings by Wes Hempel, while Wadle Galleries LTD highlights the work of Walt Wooten.
Thematic in their subject matter — some might say repetitive or formulaic — Hempel and Wooten are very good at what they do. Hempel’s style tends toward photorealism, while Wooten’s painting recalls that of the Taos Society of Artists, but with a much warmer palette. In fact, Wooten’s ongoing series of Indians — posing in nondescript studio settings or in generic indoor and outdoor scenes — makes one imagine his subjects are nursing extreme cases of sunburn. The term “red man” is an understatement when applied to Wooten’s warriors. But if you can overlook the perpetual heatstroke, you can begin to respect his draftsmanship, as well his ability to convey a quiet dignity from his subjects.
Blood Brothers — a three-quarter-pose double portrait by Wooten — depicts two Indian men wrapped in solid-color blankets with their heads slightly turned looking directly at you. Despite the formality of the portrait, a rich history of shared community between the men is implied. Standing erect, but comfortably so, they appear ready to engage you in conversation. Apache Scout I and Apache Scout II |are similar in feeling, but one begins to observe that in the majority of Wooten’s paintings, those posing for his canvases are the same man — or such is the impression. For his two Apache portraits — unless the models are identical twins — only the beads and military insignia on the uniforms have been changed.
The few landscapes in Wooten’s show portray pairs of Native Americans on horseback — see Thunderheads Over
Taos and Taos Ride. They are reminiscent of works by Taos Society artist E. Martin Hennings, in which the riders are indelibly part of the landscape. But the most interesting — and, to a degree, the most disappointing — of Wooten’s works are his series of more than 50 paintings (a few are featured in the current show) in which the artist envisions a group of Ojibwe Indians that accompanied Western explorer and painter George Catlin to Paris in 1845. They visited the Louvre, and Wooten’s idea of depicting Indians in traditional garb, standing before paintings by the likes of Ingres and Delacroix, is novel. The result is fun, if not surreal — his images suggest snapshots that document the occasion. Undoubtedly, the overall experience of Catlin’s Native guests must have been a hellavuh culture shock. But Wooten’s subjects show no signs of bewilderment; they stand as requested, seemingly aloof.
What’s dissatisfying about these pieces is that Wooten’s technique is inconsistent and doesn’t reflect a distinct change of style from his own to that of the master paintings coupled with his models. In Visit to the Louvre XXV — which incorporates a rendition of Ingres’ 1811 painting Jupiter and
Thetis — Wooten’s Indian is executed well enough, but his representation of Ingres’ work is sloppy. Not only is Thetis’ left arm excessively elongated, the heavy contour lines that define it negate any sense of volume. Jupiter’s face is sketchy and looks unfinished. Given the opportunity to convey his talents in another painter’s skin, Wooten fails to wow us. Some work better than others, and I love the concept and applaud the effort.
Hempel incorporates a bit of art history into his work, but rather than trying to copy known masterworks, he paints from a variety of sources and makes them his own. In Triumph Over Empire, we see part of a colossal Greek statue towering above a nude figure gazing out to sea; Farmboy Idyll places a young man and cow in a lush, Constable-like landscape; Memento
Mori (Hourglass) features a guy contemplating the sands of time atop an ornate Corinthian capital; and Decision includes a young man with clenched fists pondering his next move among a group of daintily clad, daydreaming women plucked from an Alma-Tadema painting.
Hempel’s exquisite technique and realistic style also give nods to Poussin, any number of 17th-century Dutch painters, Caravaggio, and, dare I say,
Walt Wooten: Visit to the Louvre LXI, 2011, oil on canvas, 46 x 40 inches (in the background is Wooten’s rendition of Wealth by Simon Vouet, circa 1635)