“The Investors” is the type of nondescript title that befits the current airs about Wedge Studios. “It’s commentary, but not documentary,” Ben Betsalel, the artist behind the work, tells Xpress. And though Betsalel, a soon-to-be former Wedge studio resident, is caught in the middle of the building’s uncertain status, the show doesn’t offer a conclusion. But it might provoke conversation.
There’s a buzz in the River Arts District about the sale of the Wedge building, which was finalized on May 31. A group of eight area investors (dubbed Wedge Art Partners according to county tax records), including Wedge Brewery’s owner Tim Schaller, bought the property from Chris Payne and family members. Chris Payne is the former wife of John Payne, the studio’s founder. John Payne, who passed away in 2008, is heralded as a neighborhood icon and pillar in the River Arts District.
To make matters more stressful, the leases for three of the five artists now working in the bottom floor will not be renewed, including Betsalel. They’ll go instead for commercial endeavors, a restaurant among them, Schaller says.
It’s the eight investors that Betsalel’s exhibition features. More specifically, large-scale portraits of them. Betsalel maintains that investors in general are a driving force in all matters. Whether it’s time or money, yourself or another person, restaurants or Kickstarters, all projects and persons have a support system — the investor(s).
Betsalel began working on the portraits in June, and has been scrambling to schedule drawing sessions with each of the new owners. As of last weekend, there were still a few blank paintings stacked beside finished works in his Wedge studio. Even if they don’t show up, they’ll still be in the show — as blank canvases.
The portraits have formulaic titles like “Investor #4.” Each of these 4-by-5-foot paintings aims to capture the investor’s character and personality. “They’re not necessarily portraits of, but about the figures,” says Betsalel, who describes the painting process as changing by the minute. The sittings can last a few hours, affording his model-investors time to loosen up.
The works aren’t precise. They deal more with emotions stemming from interactions with the investors, the space and the building. Brush strokes and colors change with Betsalel’s interpretations; and as the artist puts it, “the shapes from these feelings,” rather than from practiced motions.
Some of the figures have kinder gestures, warm oranges and yellow flesh tones with loose swirling movements. Others have quick, sharp and even jagged markings accented by contrasting black-and-red edges. One particular portrait has dark, sunk-in eyes. The face is kind, certainly familiar to Betsalel, judging by his brush work, but it visibly carries stress and a slight apprehension.
The show doubles as a farewell for Betsalel, who is moving to Ethiopia after the show closes. Several abstracts and one other pre-existing portrait will be laced in between the portraits. That extra portrait is one that almost every beer drinker in the city is familiar with: “Investor #1,” John Payne. It’s been hanging in the brewery for years.
Betsalel’s last exhibition marks the year’s second major departure of an established RAD artist, following Heinz Kossler’s March retrospective at the Phil Mechanic Studios. Kossler was also a longtime Wedge denizen.
Betsalel’s departure re-christens the space, once again called Wedge Gallery. In 2006 John Payne invited Betsalel to show work in the dockside Wedge Gallery. After a second successful showing, he was further invited to use the space as his personal studio, and to have it bear his name, which it did until this week.
When the gallery changed names, some District artists were bitter, Betsalel says. Similar sentiments have surged following the building’s recent sale.
Tenants of the five affected studios have to find new locations. There’s been a flurry of disquiet and some critcism. It’s economics, in the end: Payne leased the brewery its current space to subsidize rent for artists. The owners still pay upkeep and taxes on a piece of prime property. Schaller says the investors bought the building to keep it from falling to strangers, or at least, the possibility of condos or other feared tenants. The commercial spaces can still help subsidize the lower-rent studios in the upper floors, he says.
“If we didn’t purchase the building, someone else would,” Schaller says. “And who knows what they would have done.”
It would seem that Betsalel knows this all too well. With this sense of preservation, Schaller’s portrait will join the wall alongside Payne and the new faces of the Wedge Studios.
— Kyle Sherard writes about the visual arts for Mountain Xpress and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
who: Ben Betsalel
what: The Investors, his final show of work
where: Wedge Gallery, 155 B Roberts St. (dockside of Wedge Studios building, three doors down from the brewery)
when: Friday, Aug. 24 (5 to 9 p.m. benbetsalel.com)