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The New York Blade

THE ARTS | class

The New Male Gaze
Artists Wes Hempel and Jack Balas Revisit the Male Figure

Sep. 18, 2006

After a month-long hiatus from the Chelsea galleries, I was, on the first day of the new art season, famished for anything edgy, strange, or maybe conceptually groundbreaking, the kind of thing that Chelsea is celebrated for. But what moved me the most on that day was an ostensibly classically themed exhibit of paintings by gay artist Wes Hempel. His Greco/Roman-inspired male figures, at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, are gorgeous to look at, even as they induce a timeless melancholy.

The muscular, solitary nude in Hempel's piece "Happy Ending" sits on a stump of a Greek column, his eyes gazing into the distant, turbulent skies. The Greek stump lends the work an air of monumentality, and a book on the column, "Truth and Beauty" by Keats, references philosophy. But the man sports a modern tattoo on his shoulder, giving the work present-day implications. According to the artist, the painting examines man's ongoing philosophical struggles. All I know is, this is one deep-looking hunk.

Other pieces by Hempel also conflate the ancient and the new. In "Call," a towel-clad man stands majestically on a lakeside rock, his hands cupped over his mouth as though ready to make a momentous announcement. The romanticized landscape gives it a Hudson River School feel. In fact, this work was inspired by a famous illustration by Maxwell Parrish from the turn of the 20th century, in which a robed woman was the subject. Hempel's modification replaces the iconographic female nude in art history with that of the male.

"Supplication," one of the few paintings that features two men together, has them posed on a smooth marble surface. One of them, bare-chested and buff, lies on his back and is lost in contemplation. The other figure, on bent knee, hovers over the first figure with hands clasped as though in prayer. Like most of the figures in the show, these men are as brooding as they are beautiful. Hempel says that he depicts men in the physical prime of their lives, and simultaneously conflicted, as a metaphor for the modern gay man, who feels vulnerable and thwarted even as he makes advances in society.

In contrast to Hempel's weighty work, an exhibit of watercolors in a separate room by Hempel's partner of 23 years, Jack Balas, has a tone that is light and humorous. Here, too, the male figure predominates. Several pieces depict art exhibit advertisements whose pictures have been playfully substituted by Balas' own work. For instance, a re-created poster for Richard Serra's abstract sculpture exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery, "Rolled and Forged," now features men in shorts sunbathing in a park. Likewise, an ad for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, titled "Always Modern," now shows a frontal nude image of a strapping guy. It's a sly and clever bit of tongue-in-cheek fantasy.

Other works by Balas are amusing in their own way. For instance, "Six Pack" shows men on the beach placed inside compartments in a huge carton of beer; the title refers to men's avid pursuits of both chiseled abs and drunken revelry. And in "The Age of Bronze," a naked man does a bodybuilding pose in front of what can only be an unresponsive female bronze nude.

Wes Hempel and Jack Balas display complementary versions of the new male gaze. For the art-hungry enthusiast who has been anticipating the fall season, a visit to the Jenkins Johnson Gallery will provide a full course meal.

"Inquiry and Desire," 10 a.m.­6 p.m., Tues.­Sat., until Oct. 15, at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 521 W. 26th St., 5th Fl., jenkinsjohnsongallery.com, 212-629-0707. Rafael Risemberg, Ph.D. will include Hempel's and Balas' exhibits as part of a gay & lesbian art gallery tour on Sat. Sept. 30, through New York Gallery Tours, nygallerytours.com, 212-946-1548.

© 2006 The New York Blade | A Window Media Publication