At first glance, Jeff Abell’s new work at Vespine Gallery looks like simply rendered watercolor washes with red, blue, purple and orange hues melting the air around various strangely familiar male bodies. Closer inspection reveals that they aren’t paintings at all, but inkjet transfers. The method is commonly taught, though to imagine it executed with more precision or thoughtful direction would be a challenge. Abell prints photos of Renaissance statuary, cropping out parts of the body to create nearly abstract shapes such as in “Oh Jesus!” or uses enough of the body that we recognize perfectly sculpted torsos, “L’homme vert,” then wets the inkjet prints with water and lays them image-down on watercolor paper, where the print melts, twists, distorts and bleeds onto the paper. Simple in theory, but in practice difficult to avoid the kind of smudge made when placing a wet glass on newsprint. The bodies chosen convey homoerotic muscle, perfectly complemented by soft color saturation, almost dreamlike and musical, appearing somewhat burnished in a way that makes the figures seem handled, caressed and loved. “Le garcon d’automne” is primarily a face looking downward, shoulder up, with vivid psychedelic color that transforms his hair into Rastafarian tendrils that disappear into space. Because of color saturation, it’s hard to tell if the face is smiling or grimacing, but regardless the feeling is of ecstasy. The pieces are lovely, small and satisfying to study closely as well as at a distance, and Abell is a technically virtuous and talented composer. (Damien James)
Jeff Abell, “Hymn to Beauty,” shows at Vespine, 1907 South Halsted, (312)962-5850, through June 28.