Theory of evolution

With his MFA thesis exhibit, Ahren Hertel evolves beyond pop surrealism

Jeff Erickson’s exhibit, Western Star, is on display at the Sheppard Fine ArtsGallery in the Church Fine Arts building at UNR, 1664 N. Virginia St., through April 10. Ahren Hertel’s exhibit, Forward, opens in the same location on April 16, with a reception beginning at 6 p.m. For more information, call 784-6658.

For three years running, Ahren Hertel has been voted the best artist of Northern Nevada in this newspaper’s reader poll. This despite not having had a local gallery exhibition in two years. Hertel was once a co-owner of Chapterhouse Gallery, an art gallery that attracted a big number of votes in the most recent RN&R “best of,” despite having been closed for nearly five years. So Hertel’s work, in addition to being popular, is memorable.

He’s a painter. And though his work hasn’t been shown at a local gallery recently, it has gained wide exposure by being prominently displayed in other venues, including popular local bars like Lincoln Lounge and the now-defunct Satellite. For many locals familiar with his artwork and a mind to apply labels, Hertel is closely associated with—and likely considered the foremost local practitioner of—pop surrealism.

For young artists growing up in the latter half of the 20th century, the dense cerebral nature of a lot of contemporary art might be off-putting enough to drive them toward twin pillars of pop surrealism: “lowbrow” art, like comic books and tattoos, and older, realistic and representational modes of painting.

“I was really into Calvin and Hobbes and Renaissance painting,” says Hertel. So he developed a style of bizarre, cartoon-like paintings, but realistically rendered with meticulous detail. It fit in perfectly with the boom of interest in the pop surrealist style, fueled since the mid-1990s by magazines like Juxtapoz. Hertel was selling pieces, having his work shown around the world, and garnering accolades.

But now he’s leaving the pop surrealist style behind.

Portrait of the artist

Hertel wears a beard, square glasses and, invariably, a hat pulled low on his brow. He has the attentive, observant eyes you might expect from an artist capable of rendering a realistic painting. His voice is at first quiet and thoughtful, but rises in crescendos of excitable speech and belly laughs. He’s down-to-earth, and though his art might be fanciful and his ideas complex, he talks about them with casual enthusiasm.

He’s 30 years old. He was born in Colorado, lived briefly in Chile as a child, moved to Nevada for first grade, and then moved back and forth from Nevada a few times before settling in and graduating from Galena High School. After high school, he attended Savannah College of Art & Design and earned a BFA in illustration.

“It was more technique-oriented than the painting program,” he says. “The painters there were all jackasses.”

He moved back to Reno in 2002, and cofounded Chapterhouse Gallery. “We wanted to fill a void,” he says. At the time, there wasn’t an alternative arts gallery in Reno. “It was just about getting people to come out and look at art, and drink some beer, and talk about art.”

Hertel and his business partners had difficulties organizing exhibits while they were all working full time day jobs. (Hertel worked a variety of odd jobs, from graphic design to loading trucks at a warehouse.) Though they had never expected it to make loads of money, the gallery wasn’t breaking even, so rather than continue creating debt for themselves, the group disbanded the gallery in 2004.

“We were a little too stupid to do it right,” says Hertel. “I always just wanted to be involved in the art community. And doing the gallery was a way to be involved after I graduated.”

After a few years, Hertel made the decision to return to school.

“I just wanted to talk about work and be around other artists,” he says.

School days

In August 2006, Hertel and another Reno artist, Jeff Erickson, became the first two graduate students to enroll in the University of Nevada, Reno’s newly launched Masters of Fine Art program.

According to Joe DeLappe, a digital media professor at UNR who was chair of the art department when the program began, an MFA program was something the art department had been interested in developing for decades.

“It’s changing the department, kicking it into gear,” says DeLappe. “It’s been exciting to have grad students in the department. … Having artists with terminal degrees raises the level of the work in the community.”

“Ahren and I were the guinea pigs,” says Erickson. “Being guinea pigs has been great because they’ve been open to our suggestions and criticisms. … The expectation is basically that we be involved with everything that happens in the department—go to all the openings and talk to all the visiting artists. Our reaction was, we have to do this? This is all stuff that we would want to do anyway.”

Hertel’s style is evolving from pop surrealism to more realistic portraiture.

“The faculty here is insane,” says Hertel—emphasizing the word in such a way that it’s clear this is a good thing. “They’re so diverse.”

“And dynamic,” says Erickson.

The two graduate students, both now on the verge of graduation, emphasize how helpful it is that the faculty members have so many different approaches to work, different reactions and different points of view. They range from respected older artists, like sculpture professor Bob Morrison, to passionate younger artists like ceramicist Rebekah Bogard and sculpture professor Tamara Scronce, who, along with DeLappe, was instrumental in pushing forward the MFA program. None of them are timid about expressing their opinions.

“I don’t think any of the faculty members pussyfoot about work,” says Erickson.

Mike Sarich, a painting professor at UNR and one of the community’s most respected artists, who was showcased with a career retrospective at the Nevada Museum of Art last year, worked closely with Hertel.

“That Juxtapoz style was a dead end for him,” says Sarich of Hertel’s work. “And he got creamed for it in his midway review. We had him question: Why that genre? And I got to give him credit for moving on because it was something he’d had some success and recognition with … but that’s what happens to grad students. Grad school pulls the rug out from under them.”

“I wasn’t just pigeonholed by the genre, all my ideas were filtered through it,” says Hertel. “It was restricting working like that.”

The graduate school experience was a way of testing the armor of an artist otherwise well on his way to becoming an established practitioner of a specific art genre. Whenever he felt defensive about some aspect of his work, he knew that it needed to be addressed.

“Whatever you get upset about, you have a problem with,” says Hertel. “You get riled up, and you start to address it. … I learned to question everything about my work—or really, I learned that everybody else will question my work, so I gained a clearer understanding of how my work is perceived.”

Inside Hertel’s painting studio at UNR.

Another challenge of the graduate program is teaching. Hertel has taught introductory art courses, like Art 100 and Painting 1. The experience was discombobulating: “I still thought of myself as a skinny dude just out of school, but when I walked in, somehow they knew I was the teacher before I even said anything. It was weird.”

The MFA program has two sometimes contradictory roles: the creative development of the students as artists, and grooming them as academic professionals.

“Right now, it’s fairly well-balanced,” says Erickson. “We benefited from being instructors. I don’t want to see that not be offered.”

The art department at any academic institution is always one of the first to be hit by budget problems. With such problems at the university, state, national and global levels, there’s little surprise that the art department at UNR, and the fledgling MFA program in particular, is feeling threatened.

“Having a strong university art program helps the community—not just in the university,” says Hertel. “If you build up the art program, the artists branch out in the community, and that improves the quality of life … which attracts more tourists and better industries here. It helps the overall quality of life in Reno for the university to have a strong art department. So the question is, why does Gibbons hate Reno?”

Forward momentum

Erickson and Hertel are presenting their thesis exhibitions this month. Erickson’s is currently on display at the Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery through April 10; Hertel’s will open at the same venue on April 16.

Erickson has the rugged build and suntanned skin of a guy who likes to drive his truck out into the middle of the desert and then build things there, but the soft-spoken sensitivity of an artist who does autobiographical work. His thesis exhibition, Western Star, is profiled more extensively in last week’s issue of the RN&R (see “Smoke and mirrors,” April 2). It’s an experiential installation, a piece that you walk into and explore, like a natural history museum exhibit of emotions. It sets the bar high for the artist who follows him.

Hertel says his exhibit will be called Forward.

“I was trying to think of a word that was about progress, evolution and change, and forward momentum—and I don’t think that’s all positive, and it’s not all negative, either, so I wanted a word that was … neutral.”

Transformation and moving forward are concepts hinted at strongly in this detail of one of Hertel’s latest paintings.

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The series of paintings in Forward are still evocative of character-based narratives, but the compositions are less cluttered, and the rendering is more realistic. The work is more painterly and less design oriented. And the narratives aren’t nostalgic childhood whimsies, but poetic images of how humans meddle and affect evolution.

Hertel describes the current style of his work as, “Symbolist or metaphorical … though the symbols or metaphors don’t have a set value. It’s not like every time I use a bird it has the same specific meaning.”

“It’s matured,” says Sarich of Hertel’s recent work. “His ideas are more sophisticated.”

“The Seeding” depicts birds employed in cloud seeding, weighing down clouds with extra precipitation to force them to rain. A girl dressed in rain gear stands to one side, looking detached but vaguely apprehensive. It captures an eerie mood of nature harnessed against itself.

Female figures have long been central to Hertel’s work. But whereas a few years ago, they were bobble-headed and childlike, they now appear like more realistic portraiture. His wife, artist Jen Graham, is one of his principal models.

Hertel says that female figures fit with the atmosphere of his paintings. “I’m not sure how to balance a male figure in a poetic environment,” he says, adding that this might be his next challenge.

For Hertel, there are parallels among scientific and technological evolutions and the artist’s creative development. For example, the evolving nature of human fuel consumption: When wood was the world’s foremost natural energy source, early conservationists began encouraging the use of coal.

“The idea was that coal was going to save us from cutting down the forests. Look where that’s gotten us. There’s always something.”

He gives an example of the way human creativity evolves: “I’m a big fan of Jules Verne. … He would respond to technology. So the battery is invented, and so he thought, what can we use the battery for? Something portable and electronic. OK, the flashlight. So what would you use a flashlight for? To explore dark places. OK, like a cavern. What would happen if you were to explore a cavern and keep going deeper and deeper? And that’s how he had the idea for Journey to the Center of the Earth. So we get this great book because Jules Verne thought batteries were cool.”

Different media present artists with different challenges, and no medium presents artists with as much historical weight as does painting.

“Painting is the first thing people think of when they think of art. It’s always recognized as art, unlike some other contemporary fields, like new media … and there’s all that history. There’s a lot that’s been done in the past. It’s been explored—not fully, I don’t want to say that—but it’s been thoroughly explored.” He then draws another analogy to literature: “Words are words, and they’ve been used before—but it’s all about how you put them together.”

Another in-progress painting, which Hertel plans to complete for the show, depicts a young woman standing at a doorway, inviting a dog inside. “With the domestication of dogs, there was someone who first said, ‘I’m going to bring that wild animal into my house!’” he says. He’s being slightly facetious—but makes a good point: There’s no other animal whose evolution has been more directly affected by humans than Canis lupus familiaris.

Returning to the show’s theme, he says he first became interested in the human impact on natural evolution after reading about a group of English breeders that attempted to breed aggression out of foxes: “They were able to do it in like eight generations. But the foxes lost teeth, their brains shrank, and their fur lost its luster. There’s always a downside.”