Texas wildlife on display at the local art museum

At a reception at the gallery earlier this month, Hassell said he was fascinated as a child by the colors and geometric patterns found in the turtles, frogs, lizards and snakes he saw. found around his home in Dallas. His work takes these shapes and colors and pushes them to the edge of reality to border on the surreal.

To equate a piece to candy-colored confectionery might seem like an insult, but Hassell cleverly designed his works to stop the casual viewer in his tracks. One cannot help but be drawn to the living landscapes and the large paintings are overwhelming in detail.

“Roseate Spoonbills at Sunset” is the perfect example of Hassell’s approach. The large oil painting is saturated with color, with no less than 17 whole or partial birds flying around a saturated, blazing sunset.

Once the visceral pull wears off, we stay with the image to explore the subtext. The animals depicted in the AMSET show are all within four hours of southeast Texas. They are an integral part of our environment. Hassell said he was not a political artist, but it is important for us to recognize that if the birds and animals were to disappear, it would take away the color from the landscape.

Hassell is a board member of the Big Bend Conservancy, as well as an advocate for Texas parks and wildlife, and her art serves to raise awareness of nature and the dangers it faces.

The painting “Shorebirds Following Schools of Fish” has a monochrome background, but the gray tones only serve to better allow the birds to come out. It creates a back and forth between color and tone. There is also a back and forth between Hassell’s very modern view and the traditional observations of 18ecentury naturalists. It looks like a page from an ancient encyclopedia, where the artist would place all the birds in a region into a single image.

Hassell does some research but says he doesn’t consider himself an ornithologist. He observes birds in the wild but is not a birdwatcher. He learns by having conversations with others, and that translates into the conversation the viewer has with the work. If the initial visceral connection through color and composition leads to a deeper discussion of the evolution of the natural world, then that’s a bonus.

Hassell keeps journals of watercolor sketches of locations – all of the paintings depict actual locations. Spontaneous watercolors are the raw material of paintings. He then applies his love of geometric shapes and breaks down the watercolors to create the paintings.

The images are not simple, literal paintings of a place, but rather an attempt to capture the experience of a place. In this sense, Hassell is an impressionist, although stylistically opposed to the French style, with its clean lines and bright colors. He gives us permission to live with our individual reactions – “I hope the viewer finishes the piece,” he said.

Hassell’s works do not fit into an easily definable category. The pair of color lithographs, “Brown Pelican, Turbulent Sea”, echoes Japanese woodblock prints, with their fantastical swirling waves, one with the water in silver and one in blue.

Hassell said the paints might only take a few weeks, but they would seep in for a while until he was inspired to create. The paintings work best when he allows them to talk to him, he said.

The fresco at the entrance to the exhibition is a collaboration with museum staff. It features monarch butterflies filling the sky over a body of water. The butterflies are three-dimensional and break free from the surface paint, immersing us in the experience as if the paint had come to life.

Hassell said he likes to mix abstraction while clearly showing what it looks like, building on the old adage that art is a deception that allows us to see something in a different way.

With “Topography”, Hassell offers us joyful, bright and colorful images. The work leaves the viewer with an awareness of what would be lost if we allowed this color to fade.

“Topography” is on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, 500 Main St. in downtown Beaumont, through June 19. Hassell will be signing copies of the exhibition catalog from 5:30-7:30 p.m., May 5.

To learn more, visit amset.org.

Andy Coughlan is a freelance writer for The Beaumont Enterprise.

Mildred D. Field