Twenty-eight years ago, George Jenne entered the third grade at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill.
His artistic abilities took his art teacher’s breath away.
“I was immediately drawn to the imagery in his work since I was using the same, stylized imagery in my work,” Paul Hrusovsky said. “I was using figures of people with fire coming out of their hands, based a lot on Catholicism. George’s work was clean, beautifully drawn, and inventive.”
“I called these type of students the unteachables since I learned from them. I couldn’t teach them.”
Jenne and Hrusovsky have spent the last year and a half creating artwork for “That Was Then: Paul Hrusovsky and George Jenne,” an exhibit that opens Saturday, May 19, at the Craven Allen Gallery, 1106 1/2 Broad St. in Durham. A reception runs from 5 to 7 p.m. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Jenne said he has always appreciated how Hrusovsky let him run wild with his art work.
“Even when I was in the third grade, our relationship was always one of banter, interesting from the get go,” Jenne said. “He was also the first working artist I had ever known. He was an established Chapel Hill artist and selling a lot of work.”
The two kept in touch, made easier by the fact that even after Jenne left Chapel Hill to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, he kept one foot in Chapel Hill by showing his multi-media work there. Hrusovsky closely followed Jenne’s rise in the national art world, first when he was on the faculty at the School of Design, and as of 2011, as a studio art teaching fellow at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Gallery owner John Craven Bloedorn has known both artists for years and suggested the joint show.
“I told John I didn’t know if George would do this,” Hrusovsky said. “George is so hip, and I’m an old man.”
Anyone who has seen Hrusovsky’s work, however, knows how truly hip Hrusovsky’s art is. The artist, too.
Linwood Hart, Craven’s frame manager and long-time friend of Hrusovsky owns five of Hrusovsky’s paintings. Not a painter when they met, Hart said Hrusovsky inspired him to start. He loves the textures in Hrusovsky’s paintings but even more, his generosity about creativity.
“He gave me the freedom to see what you do is not odd or impossible and you can do it,” Hart said.
This is the essence of what Hrusovsky tried to impart to his students, whether in a school setting or at the art camps he held each summer. “Enjoy art,” he explained. “I just wanted students to open their eyes and get an appreciation for art. Also, not to be afraid to get dirty and do it.”
Jenne agreed to the show in a heartbeat but asked for one consideration.
“George said that he didn’t just want us to show artwork together, but that we should curate it together,” Hrusovsky said. This included critiquing the work each other was doing.
Hrusovsky went home and stewed, his inner voice telling him he was just this local painter and couldn’t do it. “When you look at a younger person and how cool they are, it is intimidating. But I realized that I really needed this kick in the butt,” Hrusovsky said.
They spent time in each other’s studios, looking and talking and have produced an extraordinary show that will echo long after the show ends July 7.
“As we figured out what we wanted to contribute to the show, I immediately started to recognize the parallels that were in our work, even though it is pretty disparate work,” Jenne said. “Our medium and sensibilities are different, but somewhere in there, there is a familiar atmosphere between the two bodies of work, which I think is wonderful and makes the show strong.”
Jenne pairs two-dimensional work with sculpture and video providing a medium contrast.
“The theme of this work is sort of melding the happy and the horrible,” he said. “I am interested in where these two polar opposites kind of fuse. The work is about this polarity and where it starts to break down. How things we think of are separate are not so far apart.”
Heads carved from wax, a photograph of a woman sitting in the back of a truck with an expression of elation or horror. This gives a taste of the provocation to come.
“It is impossible to put words to the work before it is seen,” Jenne said. “It is almost dangerous. I prefer to let people experience it first, then we can have a conversation.”
Hrusovsky said the experiences his paintings grew out of are not necessarily dinner table talk. “The Mother, the Father, and the Boyfriend” is really biographical, as is “The Deal. It portrays a woman buying vegetables from a grocer who looks like a pharmacist. My mother had a drug problem,” Hrusovsky said.
It is so interesting that Jenne’s work exploring how closely opposite emotions can sit in our hearts can be seen in the faces, the moods of Hrusovsky’s paintings. It is a show that will make viewers screw up their faces, tilt their heads, and go home and dream, not always serenely, about what they have seen.
“I feel like this show is kind of a celebration or reflection on my teaching,” said Hrusovsky, who is now retired and who often gets letters from former students telling him how much fun they had learning from him. “This is also about my 45th anniversary of me being a professional artist. It has been so special for me to do this with George.”
Jenne said: “For me, it is so interesting to know someone for so many years as a mentor and a teacher and then to suddenly be making work with them and showing it together. This was a cool and important thing for me to do. An affirmation of my adulthood.”
Meyer: 919-942-3252 or email@example.com