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Face dances: John Hampshire’s MB2 (detail)..

Making His Marks
By David Brickman

John Hampshire: Portraits
Yates Gallery, Siena College, through Dec. 9

John Hampshire is obsessed. Or maybe he’s possessed. Either way, the drawings and paintings that are the result of this condition are worth going out of your way to see at Siena College’s Yates Gallery, where a solo exhibition by Hampshire recently opened.

And, unless you work or study at Siena’s Standish Library, go out of your way you must.

But don’t be misled by the map near the campus entrance that shows the Yates’ location as a small building it hasn’t been in for years. Neither should you be deterred by the fact that there is no indication that the two long gray walls that comprise the Yates Gallery are inside the library’s second-floor Trustco Reading Room (where you’ll also find a grid of computer and study carrels).

It’s there, and so is Hampshire’s stunning art.

The show includes 21 portraits. About half are ink drawings; the rest are oil paintings, mostly on paper. I don’t really enjoy discussing technique, but in Hampshire’s case it’s necessary, because his work is largely the product of a very highly developed method of making tiny marks and layering complex patterns of color; the image may seem somewhat secondary to the mesmerizing skill he employs.

This is not to say that Hampshire’s is an art of appearance only. In fact, there is a subtext in the portraits shown here, as there is in other recently exhibited work of his that is more narrative in scope.

But, in both bodies of work, one is struck first by Hampshire’s amazing facility, as well as the dogged persistence he employs to get the picture on the page.

Here, that page ranges from small sketchbook-size drawings to 4-foot canvases. In all, there is both a certain abstract quality, achieved by extremely active overall markmaking, and a high degree of representational realism, especially when viewed from a bit of a distance.

The drawings are in ink, and are created by two methods: labyrinthine doodling and crosshatching. According to a statement by the artist, this technique is an outgrowth of a “mindless activity” he practiced in high school. In many art forms (think martial, for example), mindlessness is considered a real achievement; it is, too, in these drawings, where Hampshire has succeeded in elevating doodling to the level of art.

As portraits they are somewhat workmanlike, but not quite illustrative. A self-portrait is particularly expressive, depicting the artist as the goggle-eyed freak he surely must be in order to create this work. Several other drawings are apparently of one beloved subject, called MB, making for a collective portrait over time.

The paintings have more going on, due not only to the greater expressive potential of color, but because they are more ambitious in every way. Some also have evocative titles, which helps the viewer’s imagination.

Anxiety, for instance, depicts a person clearly gripped by that emotion, though actually it is one of the less well-resolved pieces in the group. Right next to it is a stronger, similar piece titled Faith (whether that’s the subject’s name or the symbolic virtue is uncertain), in which the figure of a pensive young woman emerges luminous from a snake’s nest of slashing brushstrokes.

Even more moving is a close-up portrait of an artist in his studio, titled The Ladies Man. A dense network of colorful crosshatching delicately models the man’s face, while brash, squiggly marks underneath the surface burst from his bald head, which is crowned by a cartoonish pair of horns.

If you don’t know the back story (and I won’t tell it), you may be perplexed by the intensely sorrowful expression on this man’s face. But, take it from me, the sorrow is genuine—and the painting captures it achingly well.

Less effective are the three oils on canvas, still smelling of the thick paint built up on their surfaces (no dates were provided on the exhibition checklist, but the statement identified the work as ongoing since 1995). Titled Siren II, Superstring Siren and Head, each depicts a face with mouth agape; the images are constructed of extremely vivid contrasting colors and, like their subjects, the paintings shout rather too shrilly.

Hampshire, who lives in Troy, received an MFA from the University at Albany in 1997, and he has been very active exhibiting and teaching since then. With a number of appearances in the annual Artists of the Mohawk-Hudson Region exhibition and a solo show in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., that garnered a very positive review in a recent Sunday New York Times, one would expect that Hampshire is well on his way to a rewarding career.

While this success—if it comes—would be well deserved, the Siena exhibition left me with a couple of serious questions: Is Hampshire a one-trick pony? And what, exactly is his message? Answers may need to come before I am fully convinced.


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