JOHN HREHOV'S DRY WIT
The Indiana suburban home in John Hrehov’s Standing Still, 1999 is not the same as the Iowa farm house in Grant Wood's American Gothic, 1930, but they belong to the same world of experience. They're both sited in the Midwest: Wood was an American Scene painter, and Hrehov is a New American Scene painter, and for both the so-called American Heartland is the scene that best epitomizes what America stands for: sober decency, family values, comfortable security. (Iowa and Indiana seem less likely to suffer what New York City did on September 11, 2001.) Certainly that's what Hrehov’s tidy home, with its windows fearlessly opening on the world, brightly lit interior, and well-maintained appearance, it's a suburban dream of virtue and safety come truestands for. But it's "standing still" - not just unmoving, but going nowhere. -The title is ironical, double-edged, critical, subversive, witty: it makes us look at the happy scene twice, wondering what the people who live there are really like, behind their conformist facade.
Insomnia, 2001 tells us: they can't sleep at night. Reclining on her quasi-antique couch in calm, dignified solitude, like a provincial Madame Recamier, she looks out over her splendid garden, a forlorn Venus yearning for she knows not what. Certainly not simply love: like a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, she faces the sublime: she longs for transcendence, as the luminous moonlit sky suggests, that is, escape into infinite cosmic space, leaving her nice little life and comfortable world emotionally far behind. Romantically yearning for the beyond, she implies the subtle emptiness of suburban beauty, the inner barrenness of the charmed suburban life - the falseness of the facade of the materially good life. She escapes from the box she is trapped in, if only in fantasy and feeling.
Something similar occurs again and again in Hrehov's paintings. In The Hedge Between, 1999, the huge growth is a breath of vibrant life in the stifling atmosphere of the hermetically sealed box-like houses, each pseudo-individualized by a different color, which does nothing to mitigate their dullness. Higher than the houses, and impulsively textured -especially in contrast to their flatness - the hedge represents the wildest dreams of their invisible inhabitants. Despite living in a domestic graveyard, they are romantic about nature, even though they put it to practical use, in effect controlling and limiting it.
Nonetheless, it gloriously transcends the dumb man-made environment in which it is tolerated.
Hrehov's hedge seems to be passing through, like the small bird - an age-old symbol of the soul and transcendence - in the painting with that title.
The drawing Water and Spirit, also 2000, makes a similar point: the lawn needs the water of life, but its spirit has been tamed. The water will be shut off when there is no more need for it.
The flowers in Will He Find Faith on Earth?, 1999 also bring the banal scene to life, as do the glorious flowers in The Sign of Jonah, 2000 and the stately, vivid green trees in Garage Sale, 2000.
The tension between the bland suburban environment and the nature which transcends it while remaining bound by it is eloquently epitomized in Apple Tree, 1995. The skimpy green tree holds on for dear life against the threatening spikes of the white picket fence. The spider web is a wonderful emblem of Hrehov's ambivalence about his environment: the large web looks like a radiant sun, but it is of course a symbol of death and decay.
Both Wood and Hrehov paint with a deft, studied clarity - a kind of Flemish realist precision - that seems to mock the world they paint while rendering it with excruciating, respectful care. When American Gothic was first painted, people thought - and continue to think - that it was satiric, even though Wood said that it was affectionate. Hrehov has the same mixed attitude, with the irony more apparent than it ever was in Wood. He may have been unconsciously ambivalent about the Midwestern Heartland that was his home, but, like Hrehov, he never was about the pockets of nature - a sign of fertility of the land - that flourished in it. Hrehov, like Wood, may be a regionalist, but he understands the universal appeal of nature, and something that Wood never needed to understand: nature's poignancy in a sterile suburban environment, which is less a region with a character of its own than an anonymous place.
New York City, 2001