Jeff Hein: Portraits and Religious Work
September 12 - October 16, 2007
This exhibition was made possible through the support of the Clayton Williams Gallery of Salt Lake City.
Family, friends, models, and even the “strangers” that artist Jeffrey Hein encounters in his daily life have been the focus of his art since he took his first art class as a college freshman at BYU-Idaho in 1992. After serving an LDS Church mission, surviving testicular cancer, and dropping out of the University of Utah to pursue his professional career, Hein is well-aware of the difficulties facing the contemporary realist as he has learned to constantly ask himself “What makes a portrait more than just a portrait, but rather a work of fine art?”
In ancient Greece and Rome, it was the idealized artworks of emperors as gods that were historically lasting portraits. During the Renaissance, portraiture gave history its most famous work of art –Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Rembrandt was the most frequent self-portraitist until the modern period. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec recorded famous dancers and prostitutes in his portraits. Even after a short-lived decline in portrait production with the rise of abstract painting and photography in the 1950s, Lucien Freud and Chuck Close brought the genre into the post-modern era.
Not unlike his predecessors, Hein is redefining portraiture as a contemporary outlet for originality, style, and design. Hein’s portraits are not only about rendering an accurate physical likeness and capturing the personality of the figure, but his art has evolved so that his paintings are equally about color, composition, technique, and narrative as well as facial expression and costume details.
That Hein continues his efforts to experiment with the technique and composition of his work is particularly evident in the portrait series Growing Down. In this family portrait, Hein has separated the portraits of four family members into individual canvases. All are unified in their descending height, uniform width, and white backgrounds. The canvas with the greatest height, however, depicts the youngest girl, who is climbing a latter, which makes her look taller and fills the otherwise empty background. As the canvas size decreases, the age of the figure increases, ending with their mother in the smallest canvas. Thus the title is appropriate – Growing Down. The lower in age, the more grown “up” one is, and the taller one’s portrait is. Rather than creating a formal and traditional family portrait, Hein’s Growing Down is a play on words and canvas sizes which is both whimsical and fun for the family and the viewer.
Hein’s portrayal of a contemporary family in Dinner Time also has broad appeal regardless of the identity of the models. Perhaps the painting most deserving of his comparison to Norman Rockwell, Dinner Time portrays the typical American family sitting at dinner. The obvious humor in Rockwell’s figurative scenes, however, is absent. The two daughters look on as their father interacts with his youngest son. The mother stares at her older son, who engages the viewer with his gaze as he turns outward. The figures are individualized by their expressions and clothing, but their environment is a non-descript beige with peach squares. The color beige was not randomly chosen, but carefully selected to balance the composition of the work. Hein adds his signature retro touch with the mid-century Danish designer Arne Jacobsen’s famous chairs. Hein has said that he seeks to“[capture] character in their face, but leaving it ambiguous enough that it's interesting to other people”, another difficulty facing contemporary portrait artists. The family in Dinner Time, though individualized in facial features and dress, has been displaced from its original environment to an imaginary landscape, represented minimally by only color and design.
Raising Lazarus, part of Hein’s growing religious oeuvre, harks back to the Baroque era in its depiction of an emotionally charged story from the New Testament. Rather than being solely a narrative image, Raising Lazarus is all about that first moment Lazarus comes back to life as he opens his eyes, takes a breath, and arises from his grave. What may be unexpected, Hein is well-acquainted with the idea of being revived from the dead. In fact, Lazarus is a self-portrait of Hein himself, who a little more than a decade ago was worried he wouldn’t wake up from one of the various surgeries which resulted from complications due to his testicular cancer. The drama of the scene is heightened with the inclusion of the two female figures on the left, whom the viewer assumes are Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. The lifeless state of the fainted sister and the flaming torch glowing in what is otherwise a dark burial ground only makes the juxtaposition more apparent between life and death, dark and light. Furthermore, the viewer may also assume that the man in the foreground holding the torch with his back towards the viewer is Jesus Christ, who is not only metaphorically the “Light and Life of the World”, but who is also the literal light in the scene. Hein has said “I try not to paint his face. If I let the viewer imagine what Christ looks like, the emotion is stronger.” In Raising Lazarus, Hein preserves the mystery of Christ’s identity as well as rendering a portrait-at-a-glance of the risen Lazarus and a lifeless portrait of his sister.
Hein’s Good Apprentice is interesting because it is portrait of both an individual and a stereotype. The girl is clearly a painter’s apprentice, as the multi-colored paint on her hands and apron reveals, the used paintbrushes and palette in her hands confirm, and the button “I ‘Heart’ Painting” she wears declares. It is, however, her eyes, which look intently and resolutely at the viewer, her determined facial expression, and the confidence exuded in the three-quarter turn of her head towards the viewer that are convincing of her status as the “good” apprentice. As is common in Hein’s work, the environment in which she sits is unrepresented beyond the white-rimmed porcelain-like object in which she appears to sit. The background is all about the color blue, and how the darker shade unifies and harmonizes the overall design of the painting, and how the circle of lighter blue around the figure’s head highlights her expressive gaze. Her facial features are well-defined, yet her beret, the quintessential artist’s head accessory, is generic costume for any artist.
Jeffrey Hein has described the artistic process and raison d’être of his work as such:
"When I step in front of each freshly prepared blank canvas I'm ready to paint but hesitant. I make the first mark, and then another, and then another. Soon a mouth appears, then a nose and then eyes. Life starts to emerge from the flat textured surface. The image begins to look back at me and I can feel its emotion."
In this exhibition of Hein portraits, it is clear that the inner essence of the character is understood and rendered so much so that life does emerge from the flat canvas. However, simultaneously the color, design and composition are deliberately and correctly executed. Hein’s blend of realistic figuration and the elements of art and principles of design represent a fresh and contemporary view of portraiture that is synonymous with fine art. (written by Holly Grierson)
To see a list of works included in this exhibition, click here.