Artist John Hartley’s paintings of toys are more than child’s play

John Hartley:

Now and Then

• Through Nov. 30

• Artspace111

111 Hampton St., Fort Worth

• Free

• 817-692-3228;

Posted 7:37am on Saturday, Nov. 09, 2013

John Hartley stretches himself as thin as the oil paint on his canvases. He holds down a full-time job as associate professor of art at Tarrant County College Northwest Campus, he is the director of Gallery 414 in Fort Worth, and he has a thriving art career with a solo exhibit at Artspace111 in Fort Worth.

This multitasking had him toiling 14- and 15-hour days in preparation for his exhibit, “John Hartley: Now and Then.” It’s no wonder that his self-portrait, Living the Dream, on the walls of Artspace111 shows him collapsed on the floor looking less than alive.

“I hit the wall a couple of times, like I’ve never hit the wall,” he admits of his very long, hot summer. But the heat has not let up. Hartley has to flip the calendar to 2014 before he sees a break, saying, “I’m looking forward to a long nap in January.”

By then he probably will have forgotten that he penciled in a deserved rest.

Often when he completes a painting, he is inspired to make another. This was the case when he delivered the 21 paintings for this show. All but one had been painted since May. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said I won’t paint another Army man, and I thought that after painting the ones in this show, but I have an idea for a new Army man piece,” he says.

Army men have been a constant theme with Hartley. He takes the beat-up old bits of plastic that look as if they’ve been buried in a flower bed for decades or buys pristine new ones that are made in exactly the same molds and renders them in heroic scale. They used to appear in his paintings solo or with parts of other soldiers in the frame. Now, as in the painting Flashback, he uses them scattered in abandoned groups as powerful memento mori.

“War is never going to go away, so Army men are always pertinent,” he says. Often the toys he depicts are chipped and dented. Old pot metal toys have always been a favorite, as they show so much damage from hard play. Noses are smashed, fingers are missing, and the paint is flaking, and Hartley is unstinting in his faithful depiction of the battle wounds. The signs of age push the memory buttons, and often his very shallow depth of field gives a dreamlike quality to the images.

There is also the underlying unease. Toys carry political overtones that can be oblique or full-frontal. He paints dinged and damaged superheroes, early-20th-century toys with blackened faces, and broken Army men to which he has attached realistic prosthetic limbs. The results are often shocking.

Some of the toys in his recent paintings look Christmas-present-new. A brightly painted machine gun from the ’50s in Game Changer may or may not be viewed as political, he says.

“Some things are just meant to be fun and colorful. The toy gun could go either way. It could be advanced technology in killing or it could just be about the kid who has the baddest gun in the neighborhood,” he says.

Hartley is an exquisite painter. The paint layer on his canvases could be measured in microns, and he creates it using only a handful of colors. He buys tubes of red, yellow, blue and white and mixes all the grays, browns, greens and ochers he needs.

“He is a master painter,” says Dan Blagg, co-owner of Artspace111. “He is one of the three or four best in this area, and I’m including Dallas. His work is beautiful and technical. It is rich in color, spirit and detail — all those things that matter. I have immense respect for him and his dedication.”

Hartley is unquestionably dedicated. Since 1995, he and his wife, Adele Krause, a production manager for a human resource communications firm in Arlington, have been managing Gallery 414, a nonprofit art gallery where they mount shows for young artists who have yet to find gallery representation. If anything is sold during the exhibitions, the artists pocket 100 percent of the sales.

The gallery is a labor of love. Hartley organizes exhibits, and Krause handles marketing and publicity. The building is provided by local art supporter Razz Fiesler, and Larry Crowder maintains the website. Many artists have had a Gallery 414 exhibition springboard their career, probably none more famous than Brian Fridge, who went from showing a video at Gallery 414 to having the same work appear in the Whitney Biennial.

Hartley has to find the artists, solicit their work and mount the shows. And he has had to combat crippling shyness to do so.

“I’m not as bad as I used to be,” he says. “I used to be terrified.”

But on Gallery Nights, when the crowds are thick, Hartley will hide out in Gallery 414’s kitchen, backed into a corner where he only has to confront visitors one or two at a time. He is never seen in the gallery’s front rooms, glad-handing the crowds. He may no longer be terrified, but he is still extremely shy.

If he had to carve more time out of his schedule, he says, he’d have to give up the gallery. At times he is tempted. Then he goes to something like the recent ArtsGoggle event and sees worthy young talent in need of a launchpad, and he becomes re-energized. So he’s not ready to give up the gallery, or teaching, which he enjoys.

Hartley, who is 55, finds that his students are not as inclined as his peers to talk about their newest medications or creeping decrepitude. “They like to talk about the music they are listening to, and I like to hear what they have to say,” he says.

There is also that next Army man painting he’s been thinking about. So for now Hartley wants to keep painting, teaching and masterminding the gallery. Hopefully he’ll remember he’s due a nap in January.

Gaile Robinson, 817-390-7113 Twitter: @GaileRobinson

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