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Matt Hebermehl, Michael Porten, and Troy Wandzel, 3 Pac,” 2012, Photo by Laird/ Blacpalm, courtesy of Florida Mining Gallery

To define a city’s art scene is an uncertain task, especially when the local community is beneath the shadow of an international art school. SCAD brings great talent to Savannah, but the efforts of students and faculty directly reflect the college. Savannah artists not associated with SCAD are most acknowledged for the kitsch they market to tourists: landscapes of Savannah’s National Landmark Historic District, an area so uniquely beautiful that artistic reproduction is a ruse.

Readdressing this perspective is a trio of artists: Matt HebermehlMichael Porten and Troy Wandzel–three SCAD alumni who have evolved from art students into distinct members of a misrepresented artistic community. In conjunction with curator Cindy Szczecinski of CAS Fine Art, they present three distinct styles of painting in the exhibit, Triple Threat: 3 Artists Redefining Savannah, at Florida Mining Gallery in Jacksonville, FL.

“Jacksonville has a set idea of what Savannah is,” says Wandzel, who has exhibited there in the past. “They admire Savannah but they read [art by Savannah artists] as historical looking paintings and maybe impressionist-inspired paintings or marsh scenes, abstractions of landscapes and things like that. We’re just trying to spark something again. We’re forcing a point. We’re showing elements of Savannah that people may not really know.”

An emphasis on line relates Hebermehl’s bright abstracts (2011-2012), Porten’s optical art panels (all 2012) and Wandzel’s self-portraits (2011-2012). “Each artist has a creative arsenal that threatens, redefines and constantly questions how art is conceived, created and consumed,” says Hebermehl.

For years, Hebermehl has worked with other artists to elevate Savannah’s art scene, organizing guerilla-style artist exhibitions on the streets of Miami’s Wynwood Arts District during Art Basel, helping publish zines and talking up the scene in national publications. (A 2010 profile in JUXTAPOZ Magazine quotes Hebermehl, “I didn’t want someone else’s scene. I made my own. Now’s the time. Savannah’s the place.” The paragraph lays more emphasis on the community in which he creates than it does his own creations.)

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Matt Hebermehl, 2012

Hebermehl’s work in Triple Threat speaks for him. Long recognized for his icon and pattern based abstractions, Hebermehl’s paintings are reminiscent of street and fine artist David Ellis (who Hebermehl has worked with in the past). In the last few years, Hebermehl has painted with a restricted vocabulary of loops and lines; they are his trademark forms. The new abstract works, all acrylic and spray paint on panel, are a refined advance on his signature patterns. His color palette is hip, young: spray paint neon, candy-colored acrylics and black. In every canvas, the colors have momentum, rampancy; the black loops are painted with a conscious hand.

Many of his works play off others–‘Round and ‘Round, Slow and Low, and Get Down for the Upstroke are predominantly big black loops filled in or lined with blue, on a background of multicolored swipes. The canvases trace the natural motion of the free hand. Each is playfully gestural.

You Get What You Need is a picture of seven teardrop shapes, some inverted, that repress the fun-seeking pink, orange and blue curving lines of the background. Negative space is minimal. The black shapes in the foreground, built up with gold, dominate with solidity. They do not seem to sit immediately on top of the multicolored swoops but far in front of them, like a gate inhibiting a distant view. Feelings of restriction linger. The direct conflict of this panel: freedom and restriction, orderliness and disorder, coexist with comfortable tension.

Of similar composition is Go Time. One predominant curving line creates six abstract shapes of the same heavy black hand, rimmed in blue and gold. The black form here is relaxed; negative space eases the tension between foreground and background. Pink, yellow and blue spray paint scrolls slip between the larger lines. The title indicates an energy, the sense that something is happening–the forms are unfurling, reshaping. They’re still bound together. It’s an uncertain adventure, but one that feels inevitable. If You Get What You Need is symbolic of the past, then Go Time is of the present: from supposed to redefined, stagnant to kinetic, local to national, the lines in Go Time are evidence: the artist is in transition.

Each of the three artists offers some explorative variation on their aesthetic. Porten’s rigid line work is a stark contrast to Hebermehl’s abstracts. At once static and jolting, the black and white lines of Porten’s op-art panels (all acrylic) reverberate with tension. Intended to trick the eye, the crossover lines flinch; the subjects are elusive. The viewer must squint and examine the works from different angles, coaxing the feline in Ventoux and Veronique, or the baby in Age Spectrum into view. The images appear with an almost 3D-like quality.

Porten choreographs his lines with mathematical precision (a vinyl primer is part of his perfection). These works are outstanding in the context of work by Savannah artists–it’s a challenge to find anyone else in the area who paints anything similar–they exist in the same school as work by Bridget Riley and Tauba Auerbach, the artists who directly inspired him. “My style of painting is to not hide behind a style of painting,” Porten says. “I am always trying to learn new methods of creating work to facilitate new ideas.”

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Michael Porten, 2012

The works here are vastly different than the graphics-accented self portraits for which he is recognized. (In 2010, the #88 issue of New American Paintings (South division) featured Porten’s Symbolic Painting 2 on the cover. The painting is Porten’s self portrait in profile, monochromatic. Surrounding his face are the universal icons for man and woman, in multiple colors; behind Porten’s head, in different colors, are three groupings of curved lines.) Relative to his most recent worksPorten’s self portraits drift into the op-art realm with the red and white Glamour Nosebleed Shot series, but those images are subtle compared to the dizzying panels in Triple Threat.

The new works vary in subject–mostly faces, adult and infant, male and female, human and animal. There is one obvious self portrait. The composition of Me and Me focuses on Porten’s face; his full beard floats beyond the bottom edges of the picture. The lines manipulate the image, skewing his expression. One eyebrow is cocked as if puzzled. Porten’s op art deals directly with form; the repeated use of only black and white lines emphasizes a motif of opposites. Without color, the viewer is forced to focus solely on the subject matter, but the form conflicts this pursuit. Though metaphorically black and white represents the inarguable, these works force the viewer to examine the “gray matter,” or literally, what’s between the lines.

Things are not always what they seem–each of the artists play on this idea in their work. Wandzel’s seemingly obvious self portraiture is not about emotional expression. His repeat self portraits–always, the “looking face,” not angry or emotional–are an exploration of his curiosities. There is an emphasis on what his eye can see.

His lines are individual, relaxed. Curved, loosely crosshatched, his spacing allows the varying colored backgrounds to play a part of the skin he recreates. Three of the self portraits are painted on traditional rectangles in different colors: blue, yellow and clear plexiglass. Self With Line (oil enamel on Plexiglas) is capable of constant change. The clear blackground–the limitless backgrounds this piece can possess–represents the skin’s natural reactions to different elements: in sunlight, in a cold room, when wet. Self With Line, like Like Portrait #1 (yellow background) and Line Portrait #3 (blue background) is the same face, the same expression, but in different circumstances. The backgrounds reinvent the pieces entirely. These self portraits are about the artist’s unsatisfied obsession with painting human skin.

Repetition is how he reinvents himself. Wandzel has painted his own face thousands of times, since he began painting seriously in 2000. Early in his career, Sotheby’s Auction Houses displayed his work in their properties all over the world. In recent years, with the exception of participating in live painting events during community functions, Wandzel hasn’t exhibited. But he is always working. Recently unable to endure the heat of his downtown Savannah studio, Wandzel allowed himself to retreat into his air conditioned apartment but on one condition: he had to keep drawing on his iPhone. The simple touch self portraits evolved into this series of line paintings.

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Troy Wandzel

Much of his other work involves the lush, natural brushstrokes that lay the base of Head. Highlights in red, yellow, green and blue are painted along the contour of his features; they look vascular. The line work is sketchy. Head is not rectangular but rather cut around the edges to appear organic and suggest infinite space. This is the picture that unifies his idiosyncrasies: line work, brushwork, self portraiture, issues with color and space.

Wandzel has had trouble with rectangles and squares; he finds these traditional forms to be limiting. “They drive me crazy,” Wandzel says. [“It’s] sort of confining [to an] idea or work where–why you can’t turn a corner, why something can’t flow. Painting in general is so undefined now that anything, something that leans far more sculptural is still considered a painting, in those general terms.”

While each of these artists may exhibit their works successfully in an independent show, the works collective instill the greater purpose of society, locality. Triple Threat culminates in the collaborative piece, 3 Pac (acrylic and spray paint on panel, each 23.5 x 23.5″.) This is the only work where Hebermehl, Porten and Wandzel’s forms are in direct confrontation. 3 Pac is comprised of 25 panels. Porten’s black and white lines sweep across the background and his graphic imagery–a pink hand posed in a “thumbs up” in the top right corner, cartoon clouds and bubbles that float along the bottom right–pop out among the other artists’ details. A Wandzel head floats upward from the right, to the center of the piece, his beard adrift like a jellyfish in water. The panels curved sides interrupt a central portion of his face. Two huge Hebermehl loops, candy pink-yellow-blue, twist at the center, while the spray painted word “sigh.” stretches across six panels from the bottom left. Like a neighborhood of different aesthetics, each artist’s hand mingles with complimentary yet distinct presence.

There are smaller bits of each artist intermixed: Hebermehl’s tribal paintings, Porten’s pop imagery and Wandzel’s highlights are so congruent that it seems unnecessary to individualize each artist’s contributions but easier, rather, to accept it as a whole. Should the parts of this piece be separated, the image would hardly survive. 3 Pac symbolizes the power of community, and the artist’s role within it. It is the apex of Triple Threat. It is the example of individuality and unity, how this artistic union represents their city outside of the Savannah demarcation. The blockade formation is a likeness to the urban grid of Savannah’s historic district, the very place they’ve redefined.

This post originally appeared on the Savannah Art Map on March 29, 2012

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