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Sunny Side Up

Chris Milk Hulbert refreshingly butts trends.


Hulbert is now back at the Schindler Gallery with a new body of work titled “No More Pain,” a collection of paintings that combine warm, vivid colors with bittersweet subject matter. In them, he speaks a fresh language that, while sometimes fantastic or surreal, in every instance rings with honesty.

Melancholia always colors his imagery, and viewers might recognize visual similarities to late 19th- and early 20th-century artists who were especially pessimistic about modern times. The decorative patterns and colors of Gustav Klimt, frail and tortured figures of Egon Schiele, and the chalky ghostlike faces of James Ensor all appear to have influenced Hulbert’s figurative painting.

Yet Hulbert consistently lessens pain in his images by countering it with hope — not only with vibrant colors, but with subtle gestures of joy and humor. In his statement for the exhibition, the artist describes his themes as “fear of aging, tedium, pain, versus the solace of companionship, serenity.” Indeed, Hulbert paints “solace” with a capital “S.” In “hummy,” a crooked old man is surrounded by a hummingbird, lilies and a bright sun. In “hush,” a reclining figure is accompanied by a small angel above and two heavenly looking people, and a cat below. Stand before one of these images and comfort will wash over you.

Hulbert paints with a lucidity and confidence found at a relatively early age. His composition, handling of paint and communicative skills seem to have developed at the same rate, each contributing to his ability to make disagreeing realities agree. Life and death, joy and sorrow — Hulbert fixes on dualities of life and tempers them with faith. “Painted wood prayers” is what he calls these images. Guided by such themes, how easy it could have been to create corny mush. Hulbert is instead simple but profound.

Though Hulbert appears to have been influenced by several masters, his technique is all his own. Sometimes his backgrounds of mottled color open up to expose a figure. Other times, his figures float on top of the background field. In some areas he revels in buttery qualities of the paint and in decorative pattern, while in others he paints meticulous detail. He tends to dwell on the hands of his figures, while the rest of the bodies are portrayed with blocklike shapes, their limbs akimbo as if folding under pressure. He also focuses on natural objects that float in and out of the picture plane. He drafts flowers and birds, the symbols that carry his most powerful messages, attentively and with anatomical accuracy.

Ripe with fantasy and invention, Hulbert’s world doesn’t deny sorrow but finds its positive counterpart. There is a perfect, delicate balance in “No More Pain,” and thanks to the artist’s unhampered creative channels, the time spent looking at it is a kind of painless grace. S

“No More Pain” is on view at the Eric Schindler Gallery, 2305 E. Broad St., through April 23. Call 644-5005.

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