Imagining a Different Art Discourse

Wes Hempel’s “Identity Question (study),” 2014, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in. | GEORGE BILLIS GALLERY

Wes Hempel’s “Identity Question (study),” 2014, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in. | GEORGE BILLIS GALLERY

BY STEPHANIE BUHMANN | In a new exhibition at George Billis Gallery, Wes Hempel explores notions of masculinity by setting portraits of present-day men against backdrops that resemble paintings of the historical Neoclassical and High Renaissance era — Nicolas Poussin and Guido Reni frequently come to mind. Hempel’s work especially reflects his interest in masculine sexuality as it has been represented throughout art history.

When studying works of the past in museums, Hempel found that as a gay man what was absent was the depiction of his own story: “…paintings of the Old Masters on the walls of museums like the Met, the Louvre, and Rijksmuseum still have a certain cache. They’re revered not just for their technique but because they enshrine our collective past experience. Of course, it’s a selected past that gets validated.”

Wes Hempel revisits Neoclassical, High Renaissance eras with a queer eye

By choosing to present contemporary males as objects of desire in familiar looking art historical settings, Hempel wittily and romantically imagines an art discourse that never excluded the gay experience.

In a time when this subject still has the ability to shock the unenlightened, Hempel’s paintings are not simply aesthetically stimulating, but serve as a poignant reminder that art — no matter how liberal its traditions are touted — has also had its cultural limitations.

WES HEMPEL | George Billis Gallery, 525 W. 26th St. | Through Oct. 25: Tue.-Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. | or 212-645-2621

Stephanie Buhmann can be contacted via