The Language Of Memories and Dreams

SOME ideas are inexpressible in words.

Poet Wes Hempel discovered this, and a new degree of expressive freedom, when he turned to visual art some 10 years ago. First he made small assemblages using found objects. Then he started adding his own painted backgrounds. Finally, he turned to painting six years ago with the encouragement of artist Jack Balas, who taught him various techniques and asked him pertinent questions about composition - questions that helped him think visually.

``I didn't take myself seriously as an artist at first,'' says Mr. Hempel, who holds degrees in creative writing and teaches writing at the University of Colorado. ``When I first started doing more serious work in art, it was astonishing to me what could be expressed.''

He spent a year in the art and architecture library at the university studying the history of art. Eventually, he came to the French academic painters of the 19th century and discovered an affinity for the slightly unreal or extra-real look many of them created. Landscapes ordered by the imagination rather than by nature itself partake of memory, myth, and perhaps even dream.

Dream imagery plays an important role in Hempel's own work. ``In my painting, I am able to touch emotions that I don't touch with my writing,'' he says. ``I would use that term `dream realism' because those feelings do exist somewhere inside ... but are not easily expressed in a waking world.... In dream, there are odd juxtapositions that make perfect sense when you are dreaming and only seem odd when you wake up. When my paintings succeed, you look at one element and it makes perfect sense. But then there is a puzzle involved with it. As a whole, it becomes something else.''

In one of his paintings on view at Robischon Gallery in Denver, a portrait of a racehorse with two grooms, he captures the figures in precise detail - except that the racehorse and one of the grooms float above the ground.

In another painting, ``The Bleaching Ground,'' four men - two black and two white - struggle to stand as an earthquake splits the ground beneath them. Reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch landscape painting, the piece comments on the attempt to transplant Dutch culture to South Africa. Again, an impossible, dreamlike quality pervades the elegant realism of Hempel's technique.

``The Cobweb Museum'' presents a romanticized landscape. Above it billow clouds, and above the clouds floats a magnificent building from Dresden, Germany - a building that was destroyed during the Allied bombing of the city.

``There's the tension between having something and not having it. [The Cobweb Museum] is in the sky, untouchable and unreachable in one sense, but definitely there. Finally, it came to represent something else to me. It has to do with a person's identity as a child - an innocent - whatever was real and unique to a child became symbolized by the Cobweb Museum. A lot of this is represented through the colors - the softness of the milky white, violets, and lavenders in the sky. The clouds and the building represent a feeling I had about my own childhood - a sense that those things (innocence and whatever is unique in the child) are always there. They never go away, but they are not readily accessible, either. There is melancholy and loss.... But it is also a positive image, because the museum remains.''

But Hempel's own ``reading'' of the painting, he says, does not necessarily need to be imposed on it. He prefers viewers to plug into the mystery with whatever memories or metaphors suit their own interpretations. That repository in which memories and the past are kept hovers over the romantically ordered landscape - untouchable, but always present and influential.

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