Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Collaboration is an art in itself.  Whether in a relationship, a business, or a creative endeavor, what’s needed are a mutual sense of respect, obvious love, and the inevitable taking of risks. Jack Balas and Wes Hempel personify the best of what collaboration is all about, as long-time partners in life and as visual artists.  Though their styles are distinctly their own, each has some part of the other invested in their work – call it mutual admiration, homage, tribute – their success is as much due to their personal kinship as to their unique gifts as artists. They combine craft and technical skill with insight and rich visual ideas to create images that illumine their subjects on every level. And what exactly are their subjects?  The territory they have explored for most of their careers has been that of the place of the male in art historical and contemporary visual culture. They depict men in the potent arena of masculinity -- where, male for male, identity is not always congruent, easy, or in pursuit of assimilation. Instead, what their canvases provide is a much more incisive view of what it means to inhabit the male body as well as the male mind.  Beauty belies the strength of surface in these portraits and story-narratives.  These faces and bodies seduce us, yet ask us too to look well beyond gender -- indeed to look deeply into many things that we question about sex, desire, art history, and the constructs of the masculine.  Their men are all having a good time! Or are they? Balas and Hempel bring us close to the vagaries and portents of being a man by bringing us to the edge of what it means to simply be human.  Using a wide range of personal, erotic, philosophical, and academic visual idea, each of them seek to explore the rich landscape of men and their desires.  Not only particular to gay male experience, but certainly full of its joys, Balas and Hempel seek out the lives lived: openly, precariously, and with complete honesty. 

Jaunty, ironic, and often irreverent, Balas’s men comport themselves with abandon and absolute confidence – but are never afraid to feel vulnerable or fragile at times. They are the jocks and the college joes; the construction worker, the surfer, and the ardent academic.  In the middle of living life nonstop, they find themselves mid-stride often face-to-face with questions of purpose, desire, survival, and the enigma of masculine identity.  Always full to the brim with spirit, they can also quietly stun us with their contemplative insights as well as their drop-dead stares. Balas finds that locus of innate comprehension in his subjects -- "I see you and I know you and I'll show you to yourself."  For Balas the shape of a beautiful body can be a map of the mind. Indeed, his men are Stud Dust -- ineffably beautiful, but something transitory.  We look upon them as art, and wish upon them our desire; as author Michael Cunningham has written in his novel “By Nightfall”: “This soul sickness; this sense of himself in the presence of something gorgeous and evanescent, something (someone) that shines through the frailty of flesh….a beauty cleansed of sentimentality…..Beauty….is this then: a human bundle of accidental grace and doom and hope.” (1).
Wes Hempel's men are the visual equivalent of a contemporary mirror to the art historical past.  But with one essential element restored: This is the male gaze, the gay male experience that was left out of history. These are the images that should have been painted -- indeed were lives that were lived and visually erased -- and he gives us back a history we can't forget. Think of Manet's great "Olympia" -- but with instead a beautiful, erotic young man lying on that recamier, a bouquet of flowers at his crotch. But it is not simply the aura of what was left out that Hempel seeks to restore -- he wishes to acclaim what is available to us now to document our erotic lives in the present. His canvases are an extraordinary study in copying the masters, and in thumbing his nose at what they refused to paint.  In the end we find ourselves in the face of not just beauty, but honesty. 
Both Balas and Hempel provide us with the evidence for desire's last hope. To prove perhaps, as Hempel reminds us, Vincent van Gogh's insight that "there's nothing more artistic you can do than to love others." 
What experiences initiated your first interest in art? What kept it going?
WH:  In elementary school (first grade?) we were shown a film on Simon Rodia, the Italian immigrant who built the Watts Towers in Los Angeles.  He walked through fields, down alleys and beside railroad tracks, collecting pieces of junk -- broken ceramic, glass and tile -- which he then cemented into the metal framework of his (Gaudi-like) towers.   I was mesmerized and even as a young child felt a kinship with this artist on more than one level.  He made something beautiful from found objects in a less than beautiful setting (a rundown neighborhood in Watts).  Coming from a poor neighborhood in El Monte, a lower-rung suburb of L.A that spoke to me.  I find that there’s a spiritual component to art making, and it’s always been a part of my life, even before I found myself painting for a living.
 JB: I just last month brought to my studio in Colorado every drawing (and a lot of other things)  I ever made as a child that my Mom (and I) had saved in our house in Chicago; I'm surprised at how much there is, things that I have utterly forgotten (and my goal now is to see if I can bring any of it into my current work.)  I'd say the interest was there from early on but I don't know where it necessarily came from, as no one in the family had an overt interest in "art" per se.  I think what keeps it going, however, is the thing you get to stick up on the wall, the visual pleasure and the sense of accomplishment you get looking at it.
How did any academic training make a difference, or not, in your development as an artist? 
WH:  I’ve not had formal training.  I studied creative writing in school.  Jack, early in our relationship, gave me some of his old brushes and paints to experiment with.  He was so encouraging with my early attempts that I continued under his tutelage, eventually discovering techniques that have become my own.
JB: I'm pretty much self-taught when it comes to painting; in fact, the one and only painting class I took in college (as a junior) I dropped because of personality conflicts with the instructor.  I'd already been painting watercolors throughout high school, and my first two years in college were spent as an architecture and then a design major at IIT in Chicago.  When I got to the art department at Northern Illinois, and after this run-in with this one painter there, I became a sculpture major!  The sculptor I studied with, Bruce White, is a great guy; I think what I got most from him (and other teachers) over the five years I stayed throughout my BFA and MFA days there, was the sense of eventually becoming a peer, one who shared not only aesthetic concerns but a seriousness in regards to the whole endeavor.  The strange thing was that because I'd never given hardly a thought to sculpture before I got to the school, I felt really free to do anything with materials and concept; and so painting to me has always felt, in comparison, like I'm looking over my shoulder, conscious of all of art history (and my own).  
Were you both working artists before you met each other? How did your relationship develop as artists together? 
JB: I was living in my studio on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena when Wes and I met in 1983; he was studying creative writing at CSUN in Northridge.  We got an apartment together in North Hollywood a few months later (my building was sold in Pasadena, part of Old Town's beginning of redevelopment -- it's now an Armani Exchange).  He'd already been doing some collage-type drawings while at work in an office job, but after we were living together he began to experiment with some of my art materials, and I remember showing him a very simple watercolor demo one day.  We moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1985 for a number of reasons, one being that he could pursue an MA in Creative Writing at CU.  But he took a year off from everything before he entered the school so as to establish residency for in-state tuition purposes, and it was during that year that he really began to devote himself to making "art," mostly found-object sculptural pieces.  At the same time, while I had long been putting words and phrases into my own artwork, I had been devoting more time to writing itself, mostly descriptions of places I was driving through with my job as a cross-country truck driver for an art-shipping company.  Wes helped me learn how to add fiction to these descriptions, to give them a life they had previously not known.  Some of these descriptions were first published in 1986 by WhiteWalls in Chicago, parts of a manuscript called "MileMarker."  And Wes began to appear in a few group shows in Denver after I began directing people's attention his way, including the owners of Robischon Gallery where, in 1991, we had our first joint solo shows together.  After this initial show, Wes began to devote more and more of his time to oil painting, and while I was always available for advice of varying sorts, I think his real education came by looking at the art books in the CU library, where he very systematically took every book off the shelf and looked through it cover-to-cover before putting it back and taking down the next.  
How do you each influence/mentor each other?
WH:  I’m sure we influence each other in all kinds of ways, though being inside the relationship, I find it hard to take that apart.  I’m sure someone looking in could find evidence of influence in our respective works.  Jack is more inventive visually than I am and more adventurous.  He’s capable of thinking spontaneously in spatial terms and has an array of problem-solving techniques at his fingertips, which means he has a fuller visual vocabulary than I do.  I’m more apt to plan things out and rely on traditional pictorial elements or rules I’ve assimilated from endless hours of studying art history.
What are the challenges you both face, and what are the positives – living and working together as artists?
WH:  A large question.  Each day as it unfolds provides a new answer.  I will say this: Occasionally I’ll hit a roadblock while painting, and living with another artist means there’s someone at hand who can give me a fresh take.  I’m learning that obstacles in the studio are often blessings in disguise.  The same can be true in a relationship, which is a creative work itself, requiring innovation.  Challenges remind one to slow down and pay attention, to return to what matters.  Vincent Van Gogh said, “There’s nothing more artistic you can do than love others.”
 JB: We've long ago run out of room!  Needing two studios puts lots of constraints on wherever you live, and we both envy writers who can live and travel anywhere with just a notebook -- one reason why I've found so much enjoyment in drawing out of a suitcase on our recent trips to Honolulu.  There's a lot of overlap between our bodies of work, but we realize that we each appeal to different audiences for different reasons -- so one advantage is that we each meet the other's audience eventually, i.e. when someone approaches one of us about our work, they find out about the other's. 
Where do you think gay art and expression are right now? Where would you like to see it progress. Why are galleries not showing more openly gay artists? Should this be a concern?
JB: Mixed feelings here -- Lots of "gay art" out there is pretty easy erotica, unadventurous, predictable (as is hetero erotica) -- often amazingly adept when it comes to technique but offering little more than jerk off images or fantasies.  But I think it's important for artists to work with the ideas because it IS allowed these days, the work is not burned by families or society (much) anymore, and hopefully artists can start with these repressed images and lead themselves to better work.  I tell students these days, whenever I teach, that if they had to choose, they should err on the side of ideas.  Great technique doesn't hinder good ideas, but a lack of ideas only gives you boring work no matter how good the technique.  

Why should galleries be shy of the "Hard To Figure" series at a time when Jeff Koons creates sculptures of his sexual acts? Is it just a gay/straight question?
JB: I think sex itself, regardless of whether it's homo or hetero, is a challenge (financially) for many galleries in the U.S.  Of those that are adventurous enough to cross the line and be willing to show work with sexual content, it then becomes a question of audience proportions -- if the population is 95% hetero, then the work shown is probably going to be hetero 95% of the time (i.e. male/female mixed images).  When it comes to single-figure images, however, the picture changes.  If and when men still dominate the ranks of artists, images of naked women still dominate the "nude" genre.  But if the artist population is 50% men and 50% women, that doesn't mean we're seeing images of naked men (by or for women) half of the time -- far from it.  And that's when I think prejudice does come in -- male genitalia is so much more of a taboo than female genitalia, while female genitalia and  lesbian sex has a long history of acceptance (from Courbet to John Currin) because it turns on lots of men and plugs into their own orgy fantasies. Who wants to look at men doing it with other men?  Probably few women (but I haven't asked) and probably no straight men. 
I wrote a letter recently to Artforum  [ 2 see below ] about the imbalance of women/ men images in that magazine in particular -- a preponderance of female images with nary an even shirtless dude in sight; I'm calling it the "Boobs and Balls Count." I do think there's a prejudice here, and the first step in addressing it is to make people aware of the imbalance, much like Jerry Saltz has been commenting frequently about the lack of women represented in group shows or solo show tallies at museums when, he says, there are 50% male artists and 50% female.  (Are there?)
As for my own "Hard to Figure" series, there are only a very few pieces that show explicit male/male sex acts (and one hetero scene) -- and in those pieces I'm really more interested in how language can deflate the erotic content, i.e. my quotations from artspeak/ magazines/ catalogs really make the viewer wonder (I hope) what's really going on there.  As for the guys with simple hard-ons, I feel those apply more to men across the board, straight or gay.  Which is how I feel about the great majority of my work in general -- I  don't think of my work as "gay art" at all -- it's art about men in general, and it's for men and women to look at equally.  I'm compelled to do it because I happen to be gay, but I consider the subject matter to be about men in general and the non-sexual relationships they might have with other men.  I want my audience to be quite broad and not pigeonhole or ghettoize my work.  And I've seen first-hand how adding a few images of women among my paintings can make the homo/hetero question disappear altogether.   I had a small show of paintings in Denver a year ago in which several of the works showed women, and I was very aware when I saw it all up the first time how I didn't even ask myself if is this a "gay" show.  Do I want to go that route in the future?  I'm fighting the idea, since I think it's more market-share-oriented than anything else.  If I want to start painting women regularly, I think I will need more of an emotional reason to do so first.  Having said that, I want my current work to be engaging and amazing and beautiful and thought provoking to audiences across the board.
Who are important artists that have influenced you, and which continue to?
WH:  Simon Rodia was an early influence, as I’ve mentioned.  There are many artists I respond to at different times for varying reasons.  Jacob Van Ruisdael, the 17th century Dutch landscape painter, has remained an enduring influence.  I love the 19th century painters Frederic Lord Leighton and Adolphe-William Bouguereau.  George Caleb Bingham is someone I continue to look at.  Two contemporary painters I’m fond of are Graydon Parrish and Chawky Frenn.
JB: There's a long list, but some days I just don't feel like going there. Who do you see in the work? 
 Where is your work supported the most? What are the elements that enable that to happen?
WH:  Robischon Gallery in Denver gave me my first show and they’ve continued to be great supporters, along with my other galleries (Jenkins Johnson in San Francisco and New York, LewAllen in Santa Fe, Lizardi/Harp in L.A.).  With the internet now, collectors come from far and wide.  It’s interesting to see my work appear on foreign sites.  According to the translation (provided by Google) of one Korean site, I’m “the pop vowel which is comfortable.”  It can be unnerving, not knowing the context in which my work is being presented.  Or worse than unnerving.  Evidently you can buy bootlegged versions of my paintings made in China by a fellow named Wang Lu, which he sells on E-bay at dirt-cheap prices.
JB: Philip, my work is for sale!!  I take checks and credit cards, installments are fine, and I even give discounts for multiple purchases.  Sometimes I'll spring for shipping.  Call me, we'll talk. 
Who have your important mentors been?
WH:  Jack taught me most of what I know about art and continues to provide advice and direction (and pep talks when I’m discouraged).  He’s an insightful and generous teacher.  Jennifer Doran at Robischon Gallery has also been a constant mentor and friend.
Artists do what they do, no matter the market or attention they get. However, getting attention, sales, and support is part of the process of enabling you to continue working. How do you maintain this balance of working, producing art, and then getting it seen and sold?
WH:  I suppose I’ve been lucky in this regard.  The type of imagery I’m naturally drawn to and have been compelled to pursue happens to be accessible to a wide range of viewers.  My galleries have been successful in placing enough work that I’ve been able to paint full time.
JB: When I lived in LA I was a part-time carpenter, and I gave taxi-driving a try (big mistake).  I wound up as an assistant for a few successful artists for a few years, stretching & gessoing canvases (but not painting for them).  My truck-driving job was a godsend, in that I loved the driving cross-country and getting out of LA for long periods of time, and best of all it gave me enough money to go home and work in my studio until I had to go back to work (I was on a very erratic schedule: work for a month, have a month off, work for three weeks and get two weeks off, work for 2 weeks and have a month off; and after Wes and I moved to Colorado in 1985 I still kept the job, flying to LA and other places to pick up the truck -- it didn't matter where I was living.)  but it was also a constantly art-social event, meeting a stream of artists, gallerists, collectors and curators across the country.  Teaching is a poor cousin to this situation by comparison. 
You get blocks of time off, but mentally you are constantly engaged with your students.  I was never mentally engaged with my truck; I thought about my own work much of the time, and while out on the road took photos and did writing.  On the other hand, teaching or truck driving or waiting tables gives you $$ to go into your studio and not worry about $$; whereas being just a studio artist these days I am very often concerned about sales in order to pay the usual litany of bills and have a life too.  And even when you show in galleries, some are much more competent than others, but in different ways.  One gallery may show your work in interesting places to a broader audience but fuck up your frames or not pay you for ages, while another might be excellent in all the details but concentrate on a smaller, regional market.  So you wind up worrying about all this shit too.  Having said all this, I would still prefer to be "just" a studio artist; I like working and thinking about my work constantly -- and the $$ angle just comes with the territory unless I win a MacArthur fellowship.  (I did win an NEA fellowship in 1995, the last year they gave them to individual artists.  20 grand was wonderful back then; it lasted a couple of years, but it eventually ran out.)  
I do think, looking back, that there is some slow osmosis of seriousness that an artist has to learn, somehow.  I compare my focus and drive these days to when I was a student, and ask myself how did the transition take place?  A lot of friends who I went to art school with are no longer working, and even those who teach find it hard to have adequate time to get anywhere with their work.  Different forces going on here for sure, but then larger issues pound on it too, such as a general public that may be indifferent or confused when it comes to contemporary work or who may prefer Thomas Kincaid Painter of Light (so is that an education --or lack thereof -- problem?).
Your take on art history is wry and comic; you “thumb your nose” literally at some art subjects, yet you also respect the history as you use it to include the gay experience, as it was never historically seen. In this series you provide acclamation where none was given. Can you speak to these ideas in the work.
WH: I’ve written extensively about this in other contexts, but one of my ongoing interests is a re-visioning of what art history might have looked like had homosexuality not been vilified in the culture.  A walk through any major museum will reveal paintings that depict and, therefore, legitimate only certain kinds of experience.  While the canon’s merits are rightfully being questioned, the paintings of the old masters on the walls of museums like the Met, the Louvre, and the Rijksmuseum still have an undeniable cache.  They're revered not just for their technique but because they enshrine our collective past experience.  It's a selected past, of course, that gets validated.  Conspicuously absent to me as a gay man is my own story.  By presenting contemporary males as objects of desire in borrowed art historical settings, I'm able to imagine (and allow viewers to imagine) a past that includes rather than excludes gay experience--and thereby ride the coattails, as it were, of art history's imprimatur.  Many of my paintings work on this 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 I've moved the setting outdoors, and in place of Gerome’s nude female, the auctioneer now offers the crowd of buyers a rope-bound male angel.
The men in your paintings seem to share a romantic quality – they hark back to physical ideals of a former time, yet they are depicted in a very contemporary aspect, and have disarmingly conceptual -- almost surreal -- connotations. You seem the painter equivalent of Edward Albee -- as he makes the audience listen intently to words, you make the viewer watch intently for visual information. Can you discuss the visual worlds that you create?
WH: An Art in America review some years back used the term “Literary Realism” to describe my work, a term I wouldn’t have used but which I like a lot.  While traditional elements of painting are important to me (e.g., composition, color, surface quality, etc.), I’m most interested in the possibilities of narrative, the underlying story tied up in the imagery.  A painting captures a moment in time, but I’m always curious about the moment before and the moment after, what’s happening offstage, so to speak.  I’m hoping viewers are engaged enough on a visual level to ask these more cerebral kinds of questions.  For me, the most successful paintings are poetic in the sense that they draw you in on a surface level and then prompt you, secondarily, to question notions of meaning.
The "Farewell Series", and such paintings as "The Memory Bureau", and "Cloud Hospital" are invested with an extraordinary quality of the ephemeral and transitory object. The pairing of words with the images connotes both language as well as its silence. How did this series come about? 
WH: The “Farewell” paintings are imaginary nature scenes.  I did them in part because I was curious as to what would happen if I went straight to the canvas without looking at source material (e.g., photographs or art historical images, my usual method).  I think the absence in the settings of humans or much evidence of humankind contributes to their quietness or ephemeral-ness.  For me they have an elegiac quality.  I found myself thinking as I was working on them about the relatively short span of a human life and what it feels like, as one ages, to begin saying good-bye to a world one loves.
Words are also an important compliment in the "Works On Paper" series, in which you couple figures with specific texts. These make the viewer "read" in two ways: the verbal as well as the visual. How do you choose the texts for the figures? Or do the texts inspire the figures?
WH: The texts inspire the figures.  The idea began with an old book of mine that I bought in an antique shop in Amsterdam.  The binding was disintegrating and the pages coming unglued, but  the paper was of such extraordinary quality that as I held the loose leafs the idea came to me to paint on them.  I’ve since expanded to other books.  The series is all done on gessoed book pages.  I like how the figures work in tandem, often ambiguously, with the pre-existing texts and imagery.
 Your men are beautiful. Every one of them. Fact. Yet they are vessels for emotional and conceptual ideas rather than just contemplation of beauty. Their beauty is almost secondary to the ideas you construct with them. Can you discuss this?
WH: I may’ve already answered this in part, but conception is always of primary importance to me.  My goal is to harness a model’s natural attributes in service of a conceptual idea.  By idealizing or heroizing male beauty in romantic or art historical settings, I’m championing the kinds of desires that are natural to gay men, but which have been delegitimized in the culture.  I like to think of a youth from the future walking through a museum and seeing (either in my own paintings or ones similar) his own story told in paint, enshrined on the museum walls, and feeling affirmed as he stands before them instead of feeling excluded or marginalized.  
The "Landscape Fragments" are particularly mesmerizing to me. They have a quality of sadness to them -- their bucolic bounty seems a bit well-worn -- and in such images as in Fragment #16, the presence of the red drapery invests the composition with the surprise of a human presence. Each of the distinct trees, branches, roads -- the whole atmosphere of these paintings take on unique identities. They remind one of so many art historical landscapes such as seen in Constable, or the Hudson River School, and yet they are completely their own world. How did these come to you?
WH: Another exercise I gave myself.  Using traditional sources, mostly seventeenth-century Dutch landscapes, I cropped small sections, then fairly attentively replicated the fragment, removing whatever people, animals, or buildings may’ve appeared in the original.  Oddly, in many of the fragments there’s the ghost presence of humans, a path, an unmistakable clearing in the woods, tire ruts, the mysterious red drapery in Fragment #16.  Yet, rather than extolling the relationship between humans and nature as in the original bucolic paintings, or the tension you would find in the Romantic tradition, the paintings seem to evoke the loss of the bucolic, the memory or fragmentation of Romanticism.  Hence, the sadness.  Along with the floating building paintings and the “Farewell” series, these also seem like elegies to me.
At this stage of your career, what are the goals or inspirations -- or simple pleasures -- that you want to pursue where your art is concerned? What new visual ideas are you currently working on?
WH: My goal is the same as it has always been (from the time I was ten), that is, to be a writer.  I’ve been taking time most mornings to write.  My studio continues to beckon, though.  I love painting and can’t imagine ever not doing it.  I may be moving in a slightly new direction visually, though it isn’t clear to me yet.  This year I’ve gone back to very large paintings (in preparation for the show in Santa Fe, spring 2011), monumentalized male figures, some set in contemporary, rather than art historical backgrounds.  The narrative continues to propel me.
Your subjects are exuberant, cocky, sporty, and completely beautiful. Who are the sources for your models? Or are your men right out of your imagination sometimes?
JB: My models are right out of university gyms for the most part, though I've also found them on construction sites and once in the next booth at a restaurant.  The first one came walking past my house one day with his dog and no shirt, and I thought about it for a few minutes, hopped on my bike and found him a few blocks away and asked him if I could take some photos of him.  It was a completely intuitive move on my part.
How did the “Cactus” series come about? I love them. They are as much about survival persona as they are about the unique persona of each of the plants. They are comic, yet also have a satirical bent. 
 JB: I was teaching painting and drawing for a year in Tucson at the Univ. of Arizona, in 2003-04.  After looking at cactus out the living room window for months, I had a real urge to go out in the yard and set up an easel and just paint something from direct observation -- something I'd not done in ages.  The heads came a bit later, maybe I was thinking about antlers.  But you know at some point you get tired of all this shit guys have to take about having to be tough and strong and resilient your whole life and how insensitive we all are, etc., etc., and it's a bit like saying yeah fuck you to all those stereotypes and the people or society who promulgate them.
In “My Mount Rushmore”, your use of painting text directly onto the walls has a visceral sense – a sort of personal Lascaux if you will – and yet this work engages the viewer not only to read the text, but also to follow the line and design of your brushwork. This does two things: it places voice as well as image to a constructed space, and the viewer is almost “danced” around the calligraphy. It’s a beautiful work.
JB: I love the analogy to Lascaux !!!!  And I love it when someone makes a connection in one of my works to something I hadn't thought of before; you're telling me something fresh about it!  That, to me, is a sign that the piece is working.
 Your works have a three-dimensional quality to them because you often layer and juxtapose image upon image. The plane of the flat surface is broken into and deepens. One is danced around the composition trying to decipher meaning and context. Yet the pleasure of these works for me is that they contain visual and verbal components that may simply always remain a mystery.
JB: I've always been attracted to palimpsest, but I don't intend to be hermetic to the point that people can't find some pleasure or meaning among it all.  Admittedly there may be some idiosyncratic materials or references there, but they can be like looking through a stranger's photo album -- you always wind up making stories & meanings yourself, and just accepting that you will probably never know the details.  And, sometimes the "truth" can spoil it all.  But I am sympathetic to the viewer's gaze -- I want things there to be interesting and hopefully meaningful in more universal ways.  Thus, if my work has diaristic elements, I want them to lead to a broader point, not just satisfy an idiosyncratic urge. 
In works such as “Climb”, “Sea Change”, and “Maybe It Rained …I am 2000 miles away and a young boy. Maybe it rained the night before…”, the essence of language seems to be truncated, obfuscated, or indeed, blank. This makes for a volatile surface image because one’s energies (as the viewer) are directed at trying to uncover meanings in the images.  Why is language such a rich part of your work? 
 JB: I've always been attracted to words in art -- words that are there that say something, though I am always attracted to graphic design elements as well.  I love Persian miniatures and Japanese prints despite the fact that I can read neither language.  And I love old shop signs the way people collect them on kitchen walls, etc.  And I love good advertising! the situation where the language embellishes the imagery, takes it further in some way, not just illustrates it. You'd asked about influences -- H.C. Westermann since college days, where his language shifts slightly away from the iconography.  People assume I love Ed Ruscha, but I would say not very much; I will give him credit for putting words out there in a physical way, objects of contemplation disconnected from imagery.  But Vernon Fisher had a big impact -- creating verbal parallels to imagery, the image doing one thing  while the story does another, and while you sense an affinity they do not illustrate each other.  Illustrating with words, the 100% correspondence, is just too easy to do.  I want people to have to make some sort of leap in their minds between the two arenas.  To distance myself from Fischer, however, I would say that my stories are completely personal and idiosyncratic to me; I write from a personal and emotional level these days, with very little fiction thrown in.  To me, Fischer's early works seem more like exercises in fiction; indeed, he was a creative writing student in college before he took up painting.  I would add that when it comes to hunky men, gravitas, memento mori, etc., Duane Michals is a real soul mate.  Duane is an acquaintance, and he's repeatedly asked me where I get my models!
For me, “Hail Mary Pass” is one of your most extraordinary combinations of image and haunting, beautiful text.  I have to reproduce the text here because I find it so wonderful to read:
The scrum is out there mid-field, but my goal was a Good-Friday painting, this player along the sidelines in some spontaneous crucifixion pose, his buddies maybe noticing him, maybe not. It did not even turn into an ex-voto, the kind where something has happened and the protagonist prays to the Virgin or a saint to help remedy the situation. As it was, the day was too perfect to pray, an 80-degree April Saturday, the afternoon light raking across the spring mesquites and cottonwoods and girlfriends on the bleachers with cell phones and the freight rumbling through behind the chain link fence as these guys in impeccable bravado slap each other playfully even as the score heads south. No one was so inclined because we all sensed that the prayer had already been answered by this day, this incredibly perfect day, in and of itself -- as if we'd turned around and there it was coming at us over our shoulder like a Hail Mary Pass, this gift that drops into our arms and we run with it. Our job is to run with it, the goal not to score but simply to run with it. And we do. Boy, do we run………..Past their targets, to a wry truth.
That last sentence hits my heart every time. The words speak of much more than the “impeccable bravado” of these men at their game, they speak to something learned only from self-knowledge hard won. How did this painting come to you? 
 JB: I was watching this rugby game in Tucson in 2004, spring, where I had taken a pile of photos of the players, etc., as it was in a park and I was just standing along the sidelines with the players; it wasn't in the stadium the university has since built for soccer and rugby and lacrosse.  So over a year later, summer 2005, here is one of my favorite models with his arms outstretched.  Looked at it, hmmmm, sort of like a casual crucifixion.  What if he were surrounded by rugby players who barely notice him, rather than Roman centurions who consider this the Main Event?  The images started going together in that canvas in 2008? (but I had done a watercolor study in 2006), and the text came in last -- I wanted it to have the look of an ex voto (and yet not be); I had to really think how did I feel that day 4 years ago?  how could I bring that past forward and throw in my criteria as an artist?   The capper was the last line, Past their targets, to a wry truth, which was literally lying on my studio table in the form of a newspaper article about early 1900's snapshots.  So my hat is off to whomever writes titles for the NY Times, but that element of appropriate chance happens all the time.  When I read some phrase while going through the paper or magazines I will write it down or circle it or flag it -- I literally have a box of index cards on which I have listed words, phrases, etc. as potential titles and text overlay. 
Along with language I have thought of myself.  I've always got my ear out for titles.  (Today it's things with "field" in it, as I am drawing over some old lithographs I brought home from NIU/Chicago days -- so I've got Field Day; Field Guide; Playing the Field, etc.)  And so when I've got an image going I will often dig out my box of words (literally a box of words) and shuffle through, looking for something that resonates with the image.  Sometimes I've got a clear title ahead of time that will define the painting; but often not.  (And often I can start with more illustrative things or puns, and try to get more difficult).  I do love the idea of chance and the second life some phrases assume when going onto an image.  I do not keep track of where most of the words come from unless it's a long quote.  But I do remember  “…..Past their targets, to a wry truth”, because I've still got the newspaper article somewhere, and I even put it on an opaque projector to capture the actual typeface.  So while one may consider this or other quote inclusions a bit of fiction, sometimes these fictions are truer than truth.  Oh I love that...
Your “Tattoo Detours” have a great sense of immediacy and vibrant life. Do you work these sketches into other paintings or do these books stand on their own as a record of your travels?
JB: Up until this year I have let them just be them, and have been happy to have discovered a wonderful way to be an artist while traveling.  But this year I am in fact thinking that it would be nice to do some paintings based on the drawings -- there are a lot of strong ideas there.  The other benefit of these drawings from Hawaii has been that I've started to draw at home in the last year, usually while having coffee in the AM or a beer in the evening, instead of my usual engagement with the art magazines.  
There is not an image of yours that does not seem luminous with life – they have a joy in the mind and body, in rough beauty as well as tenderness and contemplation. Much of this comes from the very energized way you apply your line and color. It is not so much about, “work on the run” as it is “catch it now, it will be gone in a moment.” A sense of the transient complements what is transfigured.  Can you discuss this idea?
JB. I would like to hear you discuss this idea!  I'd never really thought about the formal correlations to the Memento Mori idea.  But I have long been interested in shifts between formal moves within the same piece, or in artists who do wide-ranging bodies of work.  It comes from a longtime interest in collage, but also in the idea that an artwork doesn't need to be "pure," that so little in life is.  And recently I've realized part of my aesthetic comes from flipping through magazines -- you turn the page and here is the next completely different image/idea/medium, all overlaid with texts and jazzy or boring graphic design.  And that kind of flipping or sampling is only an approximation of walking down the street surrounded by life itself.  
 As an artist, what is your main goal for the future?
JB: Many of the usual things-- better exposure, better sales, more collections, pristine museum shows and edgy installations in younger-than-Jesus precincts. The Luc Tuymans show at the Wexner in Columbus, which I saw a year ago, was not the first show I looked at thinking this work is so boring and yet the space so compelling; now when I have MY show here…
The "We'll Be Seeing You" Installation is a remarkable part of your work. This was a work of obvious love. It brings together portraiture, texts, and objects and spans a community in Denver. It is part documentation and part museum piece. It is also an archive of ideas about what it means to look at art, and who the people are that are doing the looking. Can you discuss this work and it's place in your development?
JB: I absolutely loved doing that show!  Talk about a beautiful, compelling and pristine space where you are told "We want you to turn this into your studio."  It was my favorite number-one show ever -- in no small part because I got to "work" on it every day, whenever I wanted, a real work in progress.  Unlike the "usual" show you install and then not touch for the duration of the run. The docents told me they loved coming in every day looking for what had changed (I had a six-week residency; the show was up for 3 months).  
 And it was really nice (and a challenge) to work with people who wandered in or signed up for the portraits.  But I'd never had the chance before to exhibit the complex interrelationships of all (or many) of the various things I do as an artist. To see it all come together on the wall was exciting, and I've never had the chance to paint words directly on the wall.  I think the museum thought they were taking a real chance giving me the show, seeing that I'm really known in Denver just as a studio painter/ photographer.  But I'd written a proposal (they had solicited one) that addressed their goal of substantial engagement with the museum audience and their satellite school sponsors, and with my sculpture background too I'd felt I could really address the space itself on a visual level that would be compelling as well.  The museum was really pleased with the result.  My only regret was that they did not do a catalog, but now with my Blurb series I plan to do one myself (and put it in their bookstore along with STUD DUST -- they've got the best bookstore for contemporary art titles in Denver.) 

IMAGES, TOP TO BOTTOM:"Vicarious", Jack Balas; "Rescue From the Sublime", Wes Hempel; "Judgment of Paris":, Jack Balas; "Art History Major: A Study", Wes Hempel; "I Used To Write...", Jack Balas; "Auction", Wes Hempel; "How About Now?:, Wes Hempel; "Mischief:, Wes Hempel; "A New Beginning:, Wes Hempel; "Fingers Crossed", Jack Balas; "First"Stud Dust series, Jack Balas; "Climb", Jack Balas; "Salvage Run", Wes Hempel, "Song of Birds 5: Wes Hempel and Jack Balas (collaboration); "Contents" Wes Hempel; "The Birthday", Jack Balas and Wes Hempel (collaboration); "The Memory Bureau", Wes Hempel"; "Farewell", Wes Hempel; "Song of Birds: Van Dyke", Wes Hempel; "Landscape Fragment", Wes Hempel; "Cactus Head 69", Jack Balas; "My Mount Rushmore", Jack Balas (photograph); "Hail Mary Pass:, Jack Balas; "Chalk", Jack Balas; Installation view of "We'll Be Seeing You", Jack Balas.
All artwork copyright Jack Balas and Wes Hemplel, 2010. Artwork reproduced with the kind permission of the artists.  For more information and  artwork, visit the artists’ websites at: http://www.jackbalas.com/ and http://www.weshempel.com/

Jack Balas has a current exhibition at L2Kontemporary Gallery in Los Angeles. You can see it online at: http://www.l2kontemporary.com/ 
Also visit LewAllen Contemporary Gallery, and Robischon Gallery for additional images and exhibition information.
(1) Michael Cunningham. "By Nightfall". 2010. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Dear Editors,
I realize ArtForum attempts to be ever-hip and relevant and on top of it, etc. etc. month after month, examining all viewpoints and perspectives and self-actualizations, but do you guys (including women guys) ever realize what a true drag it is for your readers to constantly be subjected to sooooooo many images, in advertising or articles, of naked or near-naked women/babes/vixens with nary a bare dude ever to be seen, to the point where men (and not just gay men) feel images of guys are suspect?  Jerry Saltz was on to something when he continually mentioned (so as to make people at least aware of the situation) that museum group shows (or other slices of the art pie) were heavily stacked with men (pun intended).  I myself am advocating you do a Boobs-and-Balls count every month as part of consciousness-raising vis-a-vis the problem.  Here's what your current October issue weighs in at:
Ad, Acquavella: Picasso female nude
Ad, Edwynn Houk; Bettina Rheims female nude
Ad, 1stDibs.com; more Picasso, and bare breast study (Stieglitz?)
Ad, PPOW; Bo Barlett clothed woman with big knockers
Ad, Heritage Auction; Herb Ritts female nudes (2)
Ad, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza; Mario Testino female nude (tastefully cropped)
Ad, Palais de Tokyo; Adam McEwen hot babes in couldn't-be-shorter shorts
Ad, Yves Saint Laurent; 6 pages! of a leggy brunette
Editorial, p. 248; Monte Hellman, woman in lingerie (back view)
Editorial, p. 250; Monte Hellman, bare babe and monster
Editorial, p. 260; Anne Collier, naked chick on zine cover (twice)
Editorial, pp. 270-71; Renoir, 3 paintings with 7 naked women
Editorial, p. 293; Adriana Lestido, 2 women in embrace (nude?)

BALLS: (but no balls are to be seen-- alas, the following is the only male flesh we get)
Ad, Urs Fischer: Michelangelo's Pieta (but Christ is draped)
Ad, p. 298, artforum diary ad: Iggy Pop with his shirt off  
The imbalance is laughable, and to add insult to injury,  in the review on p. 294 of a show explicitly titled "Ars Homo Erotica," in which there was "an omnipresence of (homoerotic) naked bodies," ArtForum has reproduced an extremely chaste image of two fully clothed gay boys holding hands. (!) Granted, given the context of that exhibition, this image by Karolina Bregula is powerful and worthy of reproduction if only to demonstrate how so tame an image could so upset the poles of Poles.  But given the context of this letter, I'd say Artforum missed a golden opportunity to offer some balance.   Is this not some weird double standard?  It seems astounding that in a world of roughly 50% men/ 50% women where roughly 95% are heterosexual, the reader sees image after image of women, as if the only artists out there are heterosexual men who get off putting nekkid babes into their work (as they have gotten away with for a few centuries).  But images of men? By women artists? By gay artists? Forgittaboudit.  To this day I've yet to discover in any magazine, including ArtForum, if Charles Ray's Boy with Frog at last year's Venice Biennale is anatomically correct -- as if the magazines are reinforcing the idea that men's bodies are taboo, so no pix allowed of Frog Boy below the waist (especially from the front, though I did see one somewhere from behind).  This double standard surfaces even in the language used to talk about images.  When women are depicted, it goes without saying that such images can have erotic potential, and it seems to be presented as "this is just a part of life; this is normal for artists to do/ think about/ etc., a reflection of society;" while the depiction of men is often clearly labeled, as if it's a warning: "homoerotic."  (Have you ever seen, let alone used, the word "heteroerotic"?) A warning as if to say: "Caution, any ingestion/ enjoyment of this image on an erotic level may induce others to think that you, the viewer, are a faggot." 
I realize any magazine has to deal with ads presented to it for publication, and so you could say, well,  the galleries send us these things and we need to make some money by publishing them.  And technically there are, with great infrequency, interesting images of naked men.  (It was almost shocking, awhile back, to see Alec Soth's photo of a naked skinhead in a swamp.)  And I could spread some blame around and go into the parallel areas of museum culpability at this point, and consider the feminist viewpoint about the objectification of women.   But when I consider all of this I would still say there is a long-term deep-down price that all men pay for the current situation -- the notion that our bodies are not worthy of depiction, that ultimately our beings are not worthy of display.   And if you are an artist who's gay, such as myself, who wants to depict the male body, such as I do, your work is going to be subject to some kind of holy standard if not dismissed early on as "merely" homoerotic.  So yeah, yeah, blah blah when you guys (women included) are laying out the usual tits-and-ass spreads it would be nice to know that you are actually going to work on some real balance. 
Jack Balas


  1. Excellent personal expressions. I admire your courage and
    talent. My generation was perpetually kept in the closet.

    I am most impressed with the combination of past & present.

  2. Thank you for this in-depth look at the work of an amazing artist. I came across your blog while doing research for my own post about gay spiritual themes in Wes Hempel’s art. You put together an excellent post, and I included a link to it in my piece at the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts: Artist Wes Hempel paints gay spiritual struggles