Up close, artist John Hampshire's paintings seem like abstractions of boldly colored lines sweeping as if blown upon the canvas by a tornado. With distance though, these abstractions slowly come together to form the image of a human face.
McDaniel College will host a collection of his paintings in its latest gallery, "Head Out: Paintings by John Hampshire" on view from Thursday to Feb. 20 in the Rice Gallery in Peterson Hall. The gallery will host an opening reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, with a talk beginning at 6 p.m. The exhibit will feature around 30 of Hampshire's portraits, formed initially from abstract forms.
"It's important to me that the pieces assert themselves as paintings and that the process is apparent to the viewer," Hampshire said. "I work in acrylics because oil paints blend and camouflage themselves, but acrylics remain visible. I want to use the strokes to create a mosaic feel, where the strokes feel more like an object and less like paint on a surface."
Hampshire said he often begins by applying paint to the canvas without any particular goal in mind. It's only once the painting begins to take shape that he guides the image to resemble a face. Hampshire intentionally completes different portions of the portraits to different levels of resolution, forcing the spectator to view the image materializing and breaking down as the eye scans the work. He said finding the perfect balance of resolution and irresolution is a challenge but one that is served well by the genre of portraiture.
"The idea is to use the head as the structure to hold the abstractions together," Hampshire said. "The faces are still recognizable even with the format of the strokes. The structure of a head has certain recurring traits, so it's easy to direct one way or another."
Steven Pearson, the Rice Gallery director, said he and Hampshire first met while teaching in Albany in the late 1990s. He said Hampshire's work initially grabbed him and over the years has evolved to become even more striking.
"He had been a figurative painter for years," Pearson said. "I've seen his work develop from real painterly paintings to a very gestural, technique-oriented work."
Hampshire said he has always been interested in both representation and abstraction, with a particular interest in the dichotomy and relationship between the two ideas. Hampshire has been doing portraits in this genre for about 20 years, though he said the series has not always been in the forefront of his mind.
Over the two decades, Hampshire said he's embraced different styles to keep the work fresh, including restricting his color palette and creating several pieces entirely in black and white.
"Head Out" is the first exhibition of the spring semester at McDaniel. Pearson said he thought this was the appropriate time to bring in an artist like Hampshire, who excels at using color to depict form, as professors begin their lessons on color theory.
"He uses color the way a camera would," Pearson said. "He breaks up an image into colors like pixels and makes them out of different shaped brush strokes. He creates these really meticulous and gorgeous surfaces."
Hampshire has shown exhibits throughout the country and has received the New York Foundation for the Arts 2011 Fellowship Award in Printmaking/Drawing/Book Arts.
Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
What: "Head Out: Paintings by John Hampshire" opening reception
When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Rice Gallery in Peterson Hall, McDaniel College, 2 College Hill, Westminster
For more information: Visit mcdaniel.edu or call 410-848-7000.