dances: John Hampshires MB2 (detail)..
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
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
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.
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
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
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.