Something elusive lurks in the portraits by painter Ron Hicks; faces seem caught mid-thought, things unsaid floating in the shapes and colors surrounding them. Such tension is part of the Denver-based painter’s approach to portraiture. A self-described “abstract artist with representational tendencies” whose work is shown at Denver’s Gallery 1261 and Vail International Gallery, he explores expressive potential to engage the observer.
Hicks’ hybrid style evolved from the more traditional approach he first developed while a student. Inspired by classic portraitists, his early works felt atmospheric and romantic. However, the artist became drawn to the subtle boundaries where bodies and backgrounds blurred. “Underneath all of these very representational paintings, I found this whole abstract dialogue happening,” he says.
The artist now sees his process as “a call and response” between his representational and abstract forms. Painting with oils, he first applies swaths of color, “and then I allow the painting to tell me what to add.” A clearer direction to a particular face or figure emerges as he layers, shades and even scrapes off color. He sometimes paints from live models but is less interested in exactness. Rather, Hicks focuses on rendering interesting compositions. “It’s more about the relationships of the shapes and the harmony of the tones,” he says. Hicks leaves it to the viewer to interpret the result. It’s a stance he adopted early on when developing his new style after an observer—visibly moved by a piece—said she saw a violent stoning where he envisioned a lover’s embrace. “Everyone has a view. The only thing you can do is hope for a response,” he says.
What unites these different interpretations is the vulnerability Hicks infuses in the faces. The artist exposes his own more overtly in works like Still, inspired by his experience of being racially profiled and violently detained by the police. In this painting, in particular, he can only see fear in the figure’s eyes, and the ghost of hands held in surrender. “It brings me back to being pulled over and tackled on the street,” recalls Hicks. He accepts that “someone else might see something different.” What the artist hopes is that these faces urge viewers to go beyond preconceived notions and toward empathetic understanding. Because, he says, “in every one of the portraits, there is a piece of me looking back at you.”