Deeper than skin

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

  • Paintings by Jeff Wrench. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

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

  • Above, a self-portrait by Northampton artist Jeff Wrench. At left, a painting from a photograph that was sent to him by somone who saw his work at a previous gallery showing over social media.

  • Artist Jeff Wrench hangs his paintings inside Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • A painting by Jeff Wrench from a photo sent by someone who attended a previous exhibit showing. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Artist Jeff Wrench hangs his paintings inside Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. 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 electrical boxes in Amherst and Florence. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/3/2019 9:23:42 AM
Modified: 10/3/2019 9:23:32 AM

There’s something about the human face that fascinates artist Jeff Wrench. In his art, on display during the month of October 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 in the Main Street venue on Wednesday. A free reception for the show will be held Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Ballroom, featuring music by Violet Walker.

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 draw attention to the painting as an object, and maybe will reveal the beauty in easily overlooked things like these common materials,” he 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, Wrench says he takes photographs of the television, “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 the Greenfield venue. That show was 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 are a distinct aspect of Wrench’s style and is evident in many of his other pieces.

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

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 art process has evolved. These days, Wrench often engages in a process he describes as “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, Wrench said 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.

Currently, Wrench says he has about 50 paintings ready for display “and a hundred more I wouldn’t be willing to hang.”

Publicly, his art can be seen on electrical boxes in downtown Florence and Amherst. In Amherst, a portrait of poet Robert Frost, who was a professor at Amherst College, is depicted alongside the quote, “Never be bullied into silence.” On the other side of the box, poet Emily Dickinson, an Amherst native, watches traffic passing by on Pleasant and Main streets next to an inscription of her own words, “Pardon my sanity in a world insane.” The box in Florence displays Sojourner Truth alongside the quote, “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 obeservers 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 current show in Greenfield, which will hang throughout the month of October, 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

How to connect

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

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