Past as Prologue

Artists in Portrayal at Etherton re-envision the art of an earlier age

What's going on at Etherton Gallery?

A studly half-naked young man in a backward baseball cap and sagging shorts leans against a giant marble head, imported directly from the classical world. Elsewhere, a guy proudly shows off his well-sculpted pecs while posing against a backdrop of wood nymphs straight out of hokey 19th century academic painting. Then, there are the buff fellows who gesture provocatively on pages taken from an art book about Jan Van Eyck, the esteemed painter of the Northern Renaissance.

What are these sexy young moderns doing in scenes of the past?

The way their maker, painter Wes Hempel tells it, he aims to do nothing less than subvert the whole of art history. His works, he told an arts writer for The Advocate, are a "re-visioning of what art history might have looked like had homosexuality not been vilified in the culture."

Hempel's paintings on view in Portrayal, a three-artist figure exhibition at Etherton, challenge the longtime dominance of the female nude in the academy. Feminist critics have long noted the persistent male gaze in art, in which male artists lovingly—and lustfully—depict the female body and along the way set male-pleasing standards of female beauty.

Hempel up-ends that dynamic: he's a gay male artist who lustfully depicts naked or nearly naked young men and celebrates their muscular charms. He delivers an extra jolt by making his men modern and situating them in the past, allowing the viewers, as he told The Advocate, "to imagine a history that includes rather than excludes gay experience."

That's why in "Nest," an oil on canvas work from 2015, the young man with the 19th century maidens is an erotic object. The model is well aware of his own attractions. He rests his hands atop his head, spreading his elbows wide to show off his naked chest. The elastic of his white underpants peeks out fetchingly from a pair of gray sweat shorts that are tumbling southward.

Hempel is taking a risk here. Just as some 19th century paintings of naked women bathing or reclining in bed strike contemporary eyes as cheesecake kitsch, Hempel's studs can turn to beefcake.

Plus, it's possible to find examples in the art canon that counterbalance his overall thesis. He's right about the dominance of the straight male perspective in art, but in the classical world, certainly, sculptors crafted marbles of beautiful and naked young men. Think Michelangelo in the Renaissance, most obviously in his "David."

Yet, as challenging as Hempel's work can be, it's thoughtful and intellectually rigorous. The pieces are beautifully and skillfully painted. In these paintings of contemporary men, he uses the time-honored art techniques of the past. He covers his raw canvas with gesso, makes an underpainting and then paints sumptuous layers of glistening oils on top.

The Etherton exhibition argues that contemporary artists have been developing a "new school of figuration." The two other artists in the show, Chris Rush and Titus Castanza, have both long worked with the human figure. Like Hempel, they rely on the sensibility of an earlier age, proving that what's old is new again.

Rush, a Tucsonan who's won acclaim for his sensitive portraits of disabled children, checks in this time with similarly sensitive portraits of adults. An exceptionally skilled draftsman, he works here in charcoal, chalk and Conté crayon, making dark, melancholy images that seem to have arrived directly from the 19th century. He heightens that feeling by using old documents, and even a schoolchild's chalk slate, as the base for his drawings.

"John," for example, made in 2015 and 2016, is a chalk drawing of man's head on slate. John has a haunting face that's disappearing into the blackness, like a ghost communing with us from the past.

Rush gave himself the same treatment. "This is me, then," from 2010, is a self-portrait rendered in an inkjet print. Placing himself back in time, Rush appears in an old-fashioned hat—the kind of head covering a farmer might have worn when he harnessed up his horses to drive his wagon into town on a Saturday. It's a poignant commentary on the passage of time, implying that all of us will inevitably disappear.

Castanza, another local artist, paints in an unabashedly Impressionist style. His splashily painted oils of current-day Tucsonans and their habitats make a fun juxtaposition with Hempel's post-modern revival of 19th century academic art. The kitschy art that Hempel reworks is the exact style the Impressionists rose up against. Castanza even has a few paintings of ballerinas—"Ballerina X" and "Ballerina in Studio"—a favorite subject of Degas.

He doesn't actually achieve the sunny brilliance of the Impressionists' colors, in part, perhaps, because he makes his portraits in the studio indoors, instead of in Tucson's searing sunlight. The best of his works are the figures set into a space, as seen in "Amonute" where an interesting full-body painting of a seated (fully-clothed) young woman contrasts in a composition full of sharp verticals and horizontals.

Outside, Castanza makes architectural paintings that glow. "Barrio Spout" is a shimmering portrait of an old mission-style Tucson house shimmering in the sun. Not a figure is to be found in its pleasing geometrical composition.

Similarly, Rush's gorgeous "Blue Bricks" painting is a simple and spare still life, likewise devoid of human life. Lapis-colored blocks preside on an imposing white platform. The empty, modernist background is a swathe of sky blue. "Bricks" is an alluring near-abstraction, a stripped-down celebration of color and form that, ironically, that turns away from the madding crowd that otherwise populates this exhibition.