Take the complement

Bird Eats Worm, Worm Eats Bird

Ahren Hertel and Jen Graham’s styles meet somewhere in a slightly off-kilter middle ground.

Ahren Hertel and Jen Graham’s styles meet somewhere in a slightly off-kilter middle ground.

Photo By David Robert

When Ahren Hertel married Jen Graham in 2005, his mother told him, “You’re marrying your paintings.”

Anyone who’s seen a Hertel painting might indeed think the reappearing black-haired girl with the round, pale face and small, rosy nose is his wife. For his more recent works, they might be right, but he’d been painting this female figure for years. The real Graham coincided with the images that were already in Hertel’s head.

Graham, also an artist, sews quirky stuffed animals, all with some intentional flaw—extra body parts, severed arms. To walk into the couple’s basement is to enter a world of two-headed owls, wooly bear caterpillars and whales out of water—be they stuffing or paint.

“Everyone jokes about how we must steal each other’s ideas,” says Graham.

Hertel sits on a couch beside her in black-rimmed glasses and a scraggly beard, petting their one-eyed cat: “It’s like how when someone starts a spoof story, and then everyone joins in, and no one remembers where the idea came from.”

Their works, though different, complement each other with highly imaginative, slightly off-center styles.

The couple is exhibiting their art together beginning Nov. 3 at the Neverender Gallery in Bird Eats Worm, Worm Eats Bird.

Hertel, 28, is earning his MFA at the University of Nevada, Reno, and has shows scheduled this year in Rome and Los Angeles. There’s something haunting about his moon-faced, blue-eyed characters—and they are characters—in these dark fairytale-like paintings. In their little sweaters and collared shirts, in a season that’s always autumn, they seem not just sad, but indifferent.

His earlier paintings of people in waters where tentacles lurk or in rooms where roots curl dangerously close to their heads were ideas born of people-watching.

“There were a series of paintings of people really not perceiving the things around them—these blank looks on their faces as they’re about to be pulled under,” says Hertel.

The tentacles are gone from his recent works. In their place are things like amoebas, spores and ideas of reproduction. “Cellular things and how it all kind of looks alike in a weird way,” says Hertel.

His characters still carry the same blank, sickly faces. “It is a bit of how I view society,” he says. “There is a lack of interest in things around community or nature.”

Comparison is nearly unavoidable in a two-person exhibit—especially a husband and wife one—and Hertel is the more refined, experienced artist. But Graham’s multi-dimensional works are formed from complicated patterns found only in her head. There are no flat teddy bears with painted faces here.

Graham, 25, studied photography at UNR, often taking photos of old stuffed animals. She took up sewing in college when she became frustrated by the lack of original clothing available. Sewing patterns were difficult to follow, so she developed them herself through creative trial and error. She started sewing stuffed animals a year and a half ago, entering two of them—a squirrel eating a worm and an octopus with severed tentacles—into a “plush” fabric show at Los Angeles’ Gallery 1988.

Many young artists from the couple’s generation use similar imagery—birds, squirrels, distorted cuteness. “It seems lots of people from our generation are sarcastic and more imagery-based,” says Graham.

“Maybe a lot of it is reactionary,” says Hertel. “Growing up with [Mark] Rothko—a red canvas with a brown square—none of it made sense. I wanted to paint people and tell stories and be a little humorous about it.”