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John Hrehov: Novel Symbols

By Dan Swartz

Fort Wayne Reader


As we continue to add exhibition spaces, both dedicated and alternative, Fort Wayne's art scene is become increasingly active and full of new names and faces. These new artists making work in a variety of media and seeing an increasing amount of success. Many times the most active and visible artists in a community are younger, less accomplished, and overtly ambitious. While these young artists are key to creation of a market, the real engines driving these markets are the more seasoned, established artists who quietly work on compelling, often unseen beauty. John Hrehov is a perfect example of a Fort Wayne artist who works quietly, thoughtfully, and with careful measure, creating compelling images which the gap between magic realism and surrealism, and many times contain a melancholic humor through the use absurd combinations of imagery, and hidden references.

After nearly two decades of teaching at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW) as a painting and drawing professor, and nearly a decade as Chair of the Department of Fine Arts, Hrehov's discipline and passion for education is clear, and can be seen in his work. The methodical vignettes Hrehov creates are small views into a world of visual metaphors and puns, which propel the total concept of the body of work being viewed. Being a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for his BFA and MFA respectively, Hrehov's midwestern education shows up in his work through the inclusion of suburbia and Christian symbology as common themes, and the traditional formats of the landscape and still life oil paintings, and the quirky, conservative, "Not quite this or that" uniqueness of a midwestern existence.

Known mostly as a painter and draftsman, Hrehov is represented by Denise Bibro Fine Art in New York City, and has had a strong career with solo exhibitions in New York, Chicago, and Louisville, KY, as well as many group exhibitions, nationally. Hrehov's most iconic works are of immaculate still-lifes made of children's toys, and awkward residential neighborhood landscapes, which bridge the soulless representations of objects with the psychologically sublime horror of a perfectly composed and glossed over image and concept of reality.

In the exhibition thesis for "John Hrehov: Charcoal", fellow IPFW professor Audrey Ushenko describes Hrehov's work as "Mannerist", and "oscillating between the romantic and apocalyptic", as well being concise descriptions of "the roiling spiritual unrest inherent to life in the contemporary world." While these descriptions are all correct, Hrehov's work also travels into an antiquated space, with images that function akin to old masterwork allegories, and he pierces the veil of contemporaneity. This bridging of old and new is the strongest aspect of Hrehov's work, creating an off-putting conceptual block to a rough analysis of an image. Calling out the perfect Renaissance compositions, inclusion of biblical characters, and reliance upon narrative are all functions within Hrehov's work which further brings out the meaning of the image. Being impressed with Hrehov's impeccable draftsmanship even while creating incredibly absurd, time intensive, and ultimately secondary images to his paintings, is also part of the aesthetic and conceptual framework. These small, fragile, illustrative, symbol rich, heady charcoal and conte drawings effortlessly to their weaknesses into strength and bring the viewer into an alternative Christian allegorical system.

In pieces like "The Cardinal's Song", Hrehov layers multiple symbols into beautifully designed, hermeneutically cautious images. "The Cardinal's Song" is a very compelling image of Fall or Winter landscape, filled by a single, bare, deciduous tree, which is occupied by a cardinal (bird) placed in the center of the picture plane, with three concentric circles radiating from a white circle which surrounds the cardinal, a motif Hrehov uses masterfully, which energizes what would have been a less interesting composition. Within the Christian faith, Cardinal's can be see as a representation of the blood of Christ, and are meant to communicate "keeping the faith through adversity", as the eponymous bird is seen during the winter with its vibrant red. This keeps with the bird and tree being placed in a desolate landscape, and the three concentric circles most likely denote the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Christian tradition.

Pieces like "Visit (for AH)", and "Barred" carry on this abstracted Christian Symbology in a less form as they both portray simplified angelic figures propped into the image upon manicured landscapes. In "Barred", the angel is more a representation of a sculptural detail, either on the fence of a gated community, or possibly a monument, placed outside of the fence, reminiscent of an extremely elaborate version of the roadside memorials constructed to pay homage to those who passed away in car accidents. The image also includes an irregularly composed sky. "Visit (for AH)" is an incredibly beautiful Hrehovian version of the classic "Annunciation", which shows an incredibly manicured, symmetrical, and segmented garden with three figures present. On the left side is a woman in a voluminous dress cutting away at a hedge, on the right is a woman sitting, with a book in her lap, looking further to the right off of the picture plane. The third figure, completing the inferred compositional triangle, is a horizontal angelic creature flying through the sky, oriented with its head to the right side of the image, and with its hand pointing to the woman on the right, referring her to Mary. One of Hrehov's strongest pieces, this quiet, highly complicated, yet stark, image tells an anachronistic tale of a temporally nondescript place, much like a Margaret Atwood novel, with all of the same general tones.

John Hrehov's work is an intelligent use of common symbology, takes a quiet, unassuming part within the dialogue of international contemporary art, and is certainly a technically incredible feat to produce.

"John Hrehov: Charcoal"
IPFW Dept. of Fine Arts
August 22-Sept 25, 2011
For more information on John Hrehov,
please visit either www.denisebibro.com,
or www.johnhrehov.com

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