John Hrehov's ALLEGORICAL REALISM

In his oil paintings and drawings,this Fort Wayne, Indiana, artist uses insignificant objects as symbols in order to tell a story.

John Hrehov's oil paintings and charcoal drawings may be inspired by everything from poetry to vintage toys, but they are alike in that all of them reveal his interest in what he calls "allegorical realism." Hrehov precisely renders otherwise insignificant objects as symbols in order to tell a story. In Shelter, the artist made a plastic statuette of a deer the focal point of a painting that alludes to both Isaiah 25:4 in the Bible and a nineteenth-century drawing by David Pell Secor, entitled A Refuge From the Storm. And in Visible Man, a painting of the Resurrection, he portrayed Christ as a "visible man" model, a clear plastic figure showing the bones and internal organs.

Even when his paintings are ambiguous or nonspecific, they possess a compelling moodiness, one that is derived largely from Hrehov's precise technique. One of his most recent paintings, Sanctuary, is a technical tour de force that took him three months of working an average of five hours a day to complete. Inspired by a Will Barnet drawing of a flock of crows silhouetted on the branches of a tree (an illustration that appeared in The World in a Frame, a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems), it depicts a complicated design of toy birds on a flat surface. Hrehov carefully arranged the plastic birds—a flea-market find— on a slightly tilted surface with the lighting positioned so crisp, blue-gray shadows would appear to link the individual forms. He paid attention to the birds' sizes and colors and placed them so their wings—some of which were spread and some folded—were at varying angles to add to the interest of the design.

Creating the setup is a crucial step in Hrehov's process. By taking a great deal of time arranging his subject matter, he can work out many compositional problems in advance. To explain the importance of this stage, he invokes Janet Fish. "She once said that she doesn't do preliminary drawings—the arrangement is the drawing," Hrehov says. "I agree with that philosophy. Half of my drawing process is in the selection of me objects and their arrangement."

He makes his initial sketch on tracing paper and then either transfers it directly onto his surface (which is usually canvas or a l/8"-thick Masonite panel) by covering the back of the drawing with graphite and retracing the lines onto the support or enlarging it on a photocopier and then transferring it in the same manner. He prepares his surface in a number of ways, including applying Winsor & Newton underpainting white over a glue size or troweling a smooth layer of acrylic gesso onto the surface with an aluminum ruler or a plastic binder from a notebook.

Next comes the paint application. His works generally consist of two layers of paint: an underpainting of a thin mixture of turpentine and pigment to block in the local color and values as well as the cast shadows, and a thicker layer composed of paint and Maroger medium. His brushstrokes are precise, and he likes to give the work a high degree of finish.

The key to Hrehov's charcoal and graphite drawings, which he renders on 300-lb Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper, is in the point of the pencils he uses. He says he is practically "obsessive" about the sharpness of his implements: "They must have almost a needle-sharp point." As a result, his technique is close to that of pointillism. "I gradually build up the halftones first and then the darks," he says. "It's very time-consuming. The benefit is the amount of control I have with creating gradations. And I can maintain the tooth of the paper, unlike when using a stump." Hrehov says he wants the charcoal or graphite to mix optically with the ground as opposed to being worked into the paper, which can produce a muddy appearance.

Regardless of the medium in which he is working, this artist is fascinated by depicting volumetric forms, and he thinks of his drawings and paintings as being sculptural. Because of this interest, he says, he often looks to sculpture as a reference, which explains the presence of toys in many of his works. 'Toys are an accessible way of using an object that can be considered a piece of sculpture," he says of the vintage playthings he salvages from flea markets. "They're not high art; in fact, they're kind of a low-art form, but I find them appealing. I like folk art, and these toys are like little folk sculptures. They're not kitschy to me—I honestly see beauty in these pieces."

The artist has used many of these otherwise simple objects in rather complex ways. He says Sanctuary is representative of the church, which unifies people. The Prodigal Son, which he painted using a toy farm set complete with pigs as a reference, is about repenting and turning one's faith to Christ. (Hrehov says this painting is an example of how he sometimes renders the toys he uses as if they were the actual entity, for example, the pigs do not necessarily look like they were rendered from plastic figurines.) And the clock in The Time That Flies is meant to represent the ebony timepiece in Edgar Alien Poe's short story Masque of the Red Death.

Hrehov was born in 1958 and grew up in Cleveland. In his teens, he attended art classes at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he later earned a B.F.A. degree. He went on to get a master's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since 1989, he has taught drawing and design at the Department of Fine Arts at Indiana-Purdue University at Fort Wayne, where he is an assistant professor. Hrehov has accumulated many exhibition credits and prizes, among them representation in major group shows in the Midwest and at the National Academy of Design in New York City. He has received awards in shows at the Cleveland Institute of Art, the Krannert Art Museum in Champaign, Illinois, and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, as well as in the one-hundred-sixty-seventh annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design and the American States Arts Competition in Indianapolis. He is represented by the Yvonne Rapp Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky.

Eunice Agar is a painter and contributing editor of American Artist. She is represented by Denise Bibro Fine Art in New York City; Yvonne Rapp Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky; and LeMoyne Art Foundation: Center for the Visual Arts in Tallahassee, Florida. She has also exhibited her work at the Glass Art Gallery in New York City and many galleries in the Northeast.
by Eunice Agar
© American Artist
June, 1997

  ©2004 John Hrehov
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