Billy Hassell, whose exhibition Topography” is on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through June 19. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Hassell’s ‘Topography’ on display at AMSET through June 19

The walls are filled with paintings and bursting with color — literally so in the case of the large mural that greets visitors to “Billy Hassell: Topography,” on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through June 19.

Hassell’s paintings and lithography prints feature birds — oh, my, are there birds — as well as fish, flora and assorted Texas fauna. Each of the images is a spectacular visual feast, with the canvases filled with flamboyantly brightly colored creatures and rich stylized landscapes.

At a gallery reception earlier this month, Hassell said he was fascinated as a child by the colors and geometric patterns found in the turtles, frogs, lizards and snakes he found around his Dallas home. His work takes those shapes and colors and pushes them to the edge of reality to border on the surreal.

To liken a work to a candy-colored confection may appear to be an insult, but Hassell has cleverly designed his works to stop the casual viewer in his tracks. One cannot help but be drawn into the vivid landscapes and the large paintings are overwhelming in detail.

“Roseate Spoonbills at Sunset” by Billy Hassell

“Roseate Spoonbills at Sunset” is the perfect example of Hassell’s approach. The large oil painting is saturated with color, with no fewer than 17 whole or partial birds flying about saturated and flamboyant sunset.

Once the visceral attraction wears off, we stay with the image to explore the subtext. The animals depicted in the AMSET show are all found within four hours of Southeast Texas. They are an integral part of our surroundings. Hassell said he is not a political artist, but it is important that we recognize that if the birds and animals disappear it would take the color out of the landscape.

Hassell is on the Big Bend Conservancy board of directors, as well as advocating for the Texas Parks and Wildlife, and his art serves to raise awareness of nature and the hazards it faces.

“Shorebirds Following Schools of Fish” by Billy Hassell

The painting “Shorebirds Following Schools of Fish,” has a monochromatic background, but the gray tones only serve to better allow the birds to pop out. It creates a push and pull between color and tone. There is also a push and pull between Hassell’s very modern take and the traditional observations of 18th-century naturalists. It is similar to a page from an old encyclopedia, where the artist would place all the birds from an area in one image.

Hassell does research but said he does not consider himself an ornithologist. He watches birds in nature but is not a birdwatcher. He learns by having conversations with others, and that is translated to the conversation the viewer has with the work. If the initial visceral connection through color and composition draws out a deeper discussion of the changing natural world, then that is a bonus.

Hassell keeps journals of watercolor sketches of places — all the paintings depict real places. The spontaneous watercolors are the source material for the paintings. He then applies his love of geometric forms and breaks the watercolors down to create the paintings.

The images are not straightforward, literal paintings of a place, more of an attempt to capture the experience of a place. In that sense, Hassell is an impressionist, although stylistically opposite to the French style, with his clean lines and bold colors. He gives us permission to live with our individual reactions — “I hope the viewer will finish the piece,” he said.

“Brown Pelican, Turbulent Sea” by Billy Hassell, a color lithograph with two different colored backgrounds. Photo by Andy Coughlan

Hassell’s works do not fit into an easily-definable category. The pair of color lithographs, “Brown Pelican, Turbulent Sea,” echo Japanese woodcuts, with their fantastic swirling waves, one with the water in silver and one in blue.

Hassell said the paintings may only take a couple of weeks to finish but they percolate for a while until he is inspired to create. The paintings work better when he allows them to speak to him, he said.

The large butterfly mural at the entrance to “Billy Hassell: Topography” on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas through June 19. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The mural at the entrance to the show is a collaboration with the staff from the museum. It features monarch butterflies filling the sky above a body of water. The butterflies are three-dimensional and are breaking free of the surface painting, immersing us in the experience as if the painting has come to life.

Hassell said he enjoys blending abstraction while still making the image clearly what the thing looks like, drawing on the old adage that art is a deception that allows us to see something in a different way.

With “Topography,” Hassell gives us joyous, bright and colorful images. The work leaves the viewer with an awareness of what would be lost if we allow that color to fade away.

“Topography” is on display at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, 500 Main St. in downtown Beaumont, through June 19. Hassell will sign copies of the exhibition catalog, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., May 5.

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This story originally ran in the April 8, 2022, Art of Living section of The Beaumont Enterprise.

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