Wade Hampton: 'Palet' Through June 30; Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; free. Centennial Hills Library, 702-507-6100.
Everyone knows that the “Mona Lisa” has an enigmatic smile, but what about Wade Hampton’s ambivalent grin?
His 90-by-68-inch self-portrait, “A Game of Chess,” literally dominates his Centennial Hills Library exhibition. Dressed in a bow tie, bolero jacket and straw hat, Hampton cuts an interesting, Old Master figure. Hands on his hips like a Duke of yore, face illuminated against a dark background, the hat brim a kind of halo, he could have stepped right out of the 17th century were it not for that Italian belt and Upper East Side white button-down. But it’s the expression that mystifies. Is it wry? Sly? Wise? Amused?
“A Game of Chess”—painted live in the studio from his own mirrored image—attests to Hampton’s mastery of technique. At a time when artists are often so technologically handicapped that they can’t sketch a flower, much less a face, without an app, Hampton has gone the other way: painting real subjects in real time. What’s more, he does a lot of it en plein air—outdoors, on an easel. Imagine painting Niagara Falls with music blasting and tourists sauntering past, sipping Pepsis and making comments about your work. Hampton’s three-hour YouTube video shows him doing just that: the Falls, the tourists, the Pepsis and Hampton in the middle, painting, happily in his zone.
The “Niagara Falls” landscape, with its jaunty turquoise hues, is among 16 works exhibited in a gallery not much bigger than a dressing room. The cozy, intimate feel of the exhibition is reflected in the small-format works of portraiture for which real people sat, and landscapes painted freehand en plein air, without preparatory under-painting and gridding to prevent mistakes. Among the standouts is “El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora Reina,” a plein air depiction of LA that inches closer to abstraction, allowing Hampton’s instinctive feel for form and color freer rein.
In titling the exhibition 'palet—a phonetic representation of the word “palette”—Hampton unapologetically appeals to the origins of the word and its familiar, even folksy, role in art history. His allegiance is to the past, and thus he paints traditional genres in oils. In doing so, Hampton dismisses any influence from the past 100 years of art history. Most of his portraits, for example, are academic exercises in realism. Instead of working to further art history by using art to respond to the cultural moment in which we live, Hampton delivers safe, pretty pieces that risk dismissal by trained eyes. His art raises questions about artists who master established techniques without urgency to participate in the conversation regarding the role and responsibility of contemporary art to shape culture and cultural perceptions.
Judging by patrons enjoying the Centennial Hills Library show, Hampton has literally found his niche. The smile in his self-portrait may just be content.