Fresh off the plane from Dallas, Atlanta painter Shara Hughes is greeted by her own large scale work hanging on the stark white walls when she enters the double glass doors.
“Oh, there I am!” she exclaims upon entering, taking in the colorful canvases throughout the room. “They all look so good together!”
Hughes is one of the five young artists currently on display at Champion, the excellent new gallery that is injecting downtown with a fresh taste of international, national and local works under the careful eye of dealer Sonia Dutton.
The current exhibition, Wild Beasts is a collection of U.S. artists’ works that share a common vocabulary of color, composition and abstract sensibilities. Each manipulates paint in a unique way to manifest their individual perspectives on the world.
The name of the show is the English translation of the 20th Century movement of painters, including Henri Matisse, that called themselves Les Fauves. These artists followed up Impressionism with a playful return to bright colors and abstract brushstrokes, things you’ll see plenty of in the current exhibit at Champion.
“I’ve got a serious fetish for Matisse,” says Brooklyn-based painter Ryan Schneider, who has just returned from a swim at Barton Springs. “I see what we’re doing as a 21st Century version of what he began.”
“Like rock n’ roll Matisse,” adds Hughes with a smile. “Not necessarily badass, but definitely spirited.”
Schneider was the one who organized the current exhibition after meeting Dutton in New York. Not a fan of solo shows, Schneider invited like-minded painters to join him in this show in a city none had visited before.
“Most of us have shown at the Galerie Mikael Andersen in Berlin. And we were all doing something that was different from what was in fashion,” Schneider explains. “There was so much minimalism everywhere. And then what we were all doing was so bold and bright. The colors are really what bring us all together.”
In this show, Schneider displays his large vibrant canvases of figures and interiors. Upon close inspection, the eye picks up buried layers of other paintings, words and added color specks and drips that add to the overall effect. “I enjoy the physicality of the paint. There’s no hidden intentions in my work,” he says.
Doing portraits engages the local community in a new way. I like it when people recognize people they know. It creates a great dialog that wouldn’t happen if I was just showing people from New York.
Hughes, meanwhile, deals largely with what is hidden from view and seen only in the subconscious. Her works on display at Champion document her attempts to re-learn how she perceives her world. Contexts are obliterated in her dreamscapes and the visual field constantly shifts in its dimensions as the eye travels across the canvas. The interpretation is left up to the viewer, with the title of one piece even called You Don’t Know, I Can’t Tell You.
“I’ve been doing interiors since 2003 and I started realizing my painting was following a system,” shes recalls. “So at a residency in Maine this summer, I started re-teaching myself how to see. I poked holes in boxes and described what I could see from that limited view and began walking around in the dark, using my hands as eyes. It’s allowing me to be more present with my visuals.”
After exploring the gallery more, portrait artist Daniel Heidkamp joins the discourse after completing a portrait sitting with a local art buyer. For this exhibition, Heidkamp is displaying his series of 21” x 17” portraits of New Yorkers and Austinites, of which he is currently working on while here in town.
“Portraiture is an observation project that is a new way for me to engage with the world, to show people how I see them,” explains Heidkamp. “People always ask me afterward, ‘Is this really how I look?’ And I have to remind them painting is an imprecise practice, there are always going to be abnormalities with my hand or with the lighting. It's part of the process.”
Even with these abnormalities, I immediately recognize a local member of the arts community amongst the hanging portraits he’s completed since his tenure in Austin. To Heidkamp’s credit, it is precisely who I think it is.
“Doing portraits engages the local community in a new way,” says Heidkamp. “I like it when people recognize people they know. It creates a great dialog that wouldn’t happen if I was just showing people from New York.”
The very cerebral Heidkamp admits to being a perfectionist, perhaps a bit less aggressive in his approach than some of his fellow Wild Beasts. Still, his color palette and liberal application of paint definitely qualify him in the league of modern day Les Fauves.
Unlike Schneider and Hughes, Heidkamp will stick around after the gallery opening to continue doing portraits of interested Austinites and to help raise money for the gallery itself. These works will be included in his ongoing portrait collection of artists and collectors that will one day be the subject of their own exhibition. Details to get on the list are available through the gallery.
The Wild Beasts opening reception happens tonight at Champion at 7pm, featuring the works of Schneider, Hughes and Heidkamp along with abstract painter Joshua Abelow and video artist Ezra Johnson. The exhibition will be on view from Sept. 1 through Oct. 8.