Deeper than skin: The art of Northampton painter Jeff Wrench

  • Northampton painter Jeff Wrench hangs his paintings inside Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A portrait by Jeff Wrench. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Northampton artist Jeff Wrench hangs his paintings at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • This is a portrait from a photograph sent to Wrench by a person who had seen his work and took him up on his invitation to email him a photo.​​​​​​ Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Northampton artist Jeff Wrench hangs his paintings at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield in early October. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A painting by Jeff Wrench from a photo sent to him by someone who attended one of Wrench’s previous exhibits. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Artist Jeff Wrench hangs his paintings at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A self-portrait by Jeff Wrench. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • A painting by Jeff Wrench that’s similar in style to his public art, which can be seen on utility boxes in Amherst and Florence. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Thursday, October 17, 2019

There’s something about the human face that fascinates artist Jeff Wrench. In his art, on display this month at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield, this intrigue shines through caricature-like portraits, touching on truths that are deeper than the skin he depicts.

“I work mostly from photos. I try to pick ones that are interesting,” said Wrench, 53, a self-taught painter from Northampton, while hanging his portraits recently at Hawks and Reed. His work can also be seen on some public utility boxes in Amherst and Florence.

Behind him, sunlight poured through a few large windows, illuminating a half-dozen oil paintings on a brick wall. One portrait was painted using wallpaper as a canvas.

“My handling of paint and use of ‘found’ surfaces like wallpaper or paint chips draws attention to the painting as an object, and maybe will reveal the beauty in easily overlooked things like these common materials,” Wrench said. “What is more common and beautiful than the human face?”

He gestured to one portrait, a woman dressed in period costume and hair, captured from a scene of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Sometimes, said Wrench, he takes photographs of TV shows “if someone interesting comes on.”

In this particular portrait, the unnamed woman stares back with parted lips — a look of anticipation or desire. Heavy paint outlines smooth features. The woman is beautiful and her clothing is elegant, but the colors Wrench has chosen hint at something more grotesque.

And while Wrench says he didn't try to capture anything other than what was in front of him — that is, a pixilated photo lacking details — his brush tells a different story. The portrait is a study in contrast. There’s depth to the illustration (in medium and subject matter) and a definitive juxtaposition.

Both traits are intensely human.

“This is one of my favorite [portraits],” he continued, pointing to a portrait of another woman with shadowed eyes and a pensive look. The image was created from a photo that Wrench took of a friend who attended an interactive exhibit of his (titled “Exquisite Corpse”) last year at Hawks and Reed, a show held in conjunction with Nina’s Nook owner and artist Nina Rossi.

Comparatively, it’s darker than some of his other work but no less compelling. Thick drops of drab color drip down the subject’s pale face. Bold strokes, a distinct aspect of Wrench’s style, are evident here and in many of his other pieces.

“The paint, you can really see it,” he said. “It’s doing interesting things.”

Wrench, who spent a career in information technology after receiving formal education in the field from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, makes art as a daily ritual. Two years ago, he sold his house in Connecticut and transitioned into a small apartment in Northampton, Wrench says, “to see how cheaply I can live,” simultaneously immersing himself in art.

In a similar way, Wrench’s artistic process has evolved. These days, he often engages in what he calls “speed painting,” working on up to four different portraits at the same time and constricting himself to a predetermined amount of time. If his quick efforts turn into a piece that’s promising, he dedicates more time to it later.

So far, the technique has paid off. Since taking his first painting class 12 years ago (before that he’d only tried drawing), Wrench has amassed an expansive body of work, with about 50 paintings ready for display “and a hundred more I wouldn’t be willing to hang,” he said

His public art recognizes some key historical figures in Valley history. In Amherst, a portrait of poet Robert Frost, at one time a professor at Amherst College, is painted on a downtown utility box alongside the quote “Never be bullied into silence.” On the other side of the box, another pretty well-known poet with Amherst connections, Emily Dickinson, watches traffic passing on Pleasant and Main streets next to one of her quotes, “Pardon my sanity in a world insane.”

A box in Florence, meantime, displays famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth alongside her words “Truth is powerful and will prevail ... I feel safe even in the midst of my enemies.”

In style, Wrench’s public work is a bit of a diversion from that of his studio paintings. It’s bright and cheery, clean and distinct, especially compared to the grittiness of his portraiture. The boldness of his strokes, however, remains the same, as does the strength of his artistic voice.

But while immediate and bold in his statements, Wrench is quick to say that he’s not a political artist — even though some observers have assigned that label to his work in the past.

“Is it the abolitionist aspect? Is it the women’s voting?” he asked.

During his Greenfield exhibit, Wrench is engaging in another project that could be interpreted as holding a more profound meaning than is intended.

“I invite visitors to photograph themselves near one of my paintings and email it to me or post it on Instagram tagging me, @noisician,” Wrench said. “I will attempt to paint every face and post it on Instagram until the exhibit is over.”

For Wrench, soliciting paintings in such a way is a means of easily collecting a wide variety of faces. But, perhaps inadvertently, he’s also exploring the intersection of social media and studio art. Before the digital era made it easy for artists to find inspiration for their work online, painters had to work exclusively with live models, often professional.

By painting anyone who contributes, Wrench is making a statement: that every face is a worthy muse.

Andy Castillo is the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

For more information and to see a complete set of Wrench’s work, visit noisician.com or find him on Instagram@noisician. Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center can be reached at (413) 774-0150.