Treasures from the Vault: John Hrehov

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

The Fort Wayne Museum of Art is fortunate to own four works by John Hrehov, who is professor of painting and drawing at Purdue Fort Wayne.  Hrehov holds an MFA from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he studied under Julian Stanczak, among many others.  Hrehov has exhibited widely and is represented by Gallery Victor Armendariz in Chicago and Denise Bibro Fine Art in New York.

Hrehov depicts familiar images from everyday life in the Midwest that can be read on multiple levels.   He abstracts realism through his treatment of pattern, light, and space.  On the occasion of the exhibition Full Spectrum featuring the works of Julian and Barbara Stanczak, I wanted to take this opportunity to ask Hrehov questions about his work and his thoughts on his former teacher.

A landscape painting shows a house with a large tree in front, framed overhead by a rainbow against a dark blue/purple sky. On either side of the house are tiny garages.
John Hrehov, American, b.1958. After the Flood. Oil on canvas on wood panel, 2002. Gift of Miles J. and Lorraine H. Davis, 2005.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo (SYR): When did you begin creating art and why?

John Hrehov (JH): I have always wanted to be an artist. I believe it all began as a child in our family’s Roman Catholic Church in the inner city of Cleveland. The works and space of the interior were profoundly inspirational, as was the symmetry of the altars and decorations. Making art is more of a need for me than a want; I feel compelled to create works which are evocative to me first and hopefully then to someone else.

SYR: What draws me to your work is the recognizable imagery coupled with a pristineness, symmetry and order, and at times, an unnatural stillness.  I feel like your work shares an affinity with artists like Edward Hopper, Giorgio di Chirico, and Hughie Lee-Smith.  Please talk about your work.

JH: I admire all of these artists, (Hughie Lee-Smith, by the way, was a Cleveland Institute of Art grad too) but I must say my favorite would be Giorgio di Chirico, especially his Metaphysical works from the 1910 -1920 period. I am interested in using recognizable imagery as a way to communicate to the viewer. The stillness in my works is something which comes to me in moments of extreme inspiration, and I see it in nature and private moments from the world around me. The artworks are ways to record the events I experience from observation; much of it has a mysterious quality. This is similar to what has been referred to in Di Chirico’s work as “the embrace of the enigmatic.”

SYR: The Fort Wayne Museum of Art owns both a drawing and painting for Standing Still (1999) and After the Flood (2002.)  What role do your drawings serve in your working method?  Do these two mediums complement or inform one another?

JH: The drawing can stand alone or support a painting. Several works were created in a kind of tandem; the FWMoA’s two were part of this. The charcoal drawing was a predecessor to a later finished painting. I also like the clear separation of working in value and then in color. The value helps inform the colored works, the same way as a Grisaille (a method of painting in gray monochrome) helps an artist separate and then clarify the two issues. Drawing is the foundation of it all, and my works will always have some form of drawing started from a very crude sketch or a more advanced study.

A study for the finished painting, this pencil sketch zooms in on a window in a house surrounded in the background by trees. The three windows show, left to right, a lamp and shade; a horse figurine; and the same lamp and shade. The windows are framed by two bushes outside.
John Hrehov, American, b. 1958. Standing Still (Study). Charcoal on paper, 1999. Gift of the Hamilton Circle, 2000.01. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
The finished, colorful painting of the sketch zooms in on a window in a house surrounded in the background by trees. The three windows show, left to right, a lamp and shade; a horse figurine; and the same lamp and shade. The windows are framed by two bushes outside.
John Hrehov, American, b. 1958. Standing Still. Oil on canvas over panel, 1999. Gift of the Hamilton Circle, 2000.02. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

SYR: As a Cleveland native, perhaps it is not unexpected that you received your BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1981.  What attracted you to the school?  What was the atmosphere like at the Cleveland Institute of Art when you attended? 

JH: I started taking weekend and then summer classes in painting at the CIA while I was in High School. I didn’t want to go anywhere else to study. A significant benefit of CIA, besides the faculty and facility, was the great Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) across the street. The CMA became an essential inspiration for me as a student at CIA. In my day, it was a walk across East Blvd. or the distance of about one hundred feet to get there. As a student (1976-1981) the environment at CIA was terrific. The overall student population was at around five hundred covering a five year BFA degree, so school had a manageable feel to it and did not overwhelm. Everyone was serious about making work and discussing it with fellow students and faculty.

SYR: The Fort Wayne Museum of Art currently has a large-scale exhibition of Julian and Barbara Stanczak’s work on view.  What are your thoughts about the show? 

JH: I’m pleased to see the exhibition of Julian and Barbara Stanczak’s work on this level and recognition. The scale and volume of work presented are impressive in this beautiful exhibition. People can see, and especially experience, the work first hand. Julian’s work especially needs to be experienced for all the visual effects generated by his use of color, scale, and pattern. Photography does not do his work justice. Also, people can appreciate his incredible skills as a craftsman; the works are an inspiration. It is a pleasure to see this beautiful collection of Barbara’s work; her sculptures are incredible abstractions influenced by nature. I especially enjoyed seeing the early works by Julian where you can see the influence of Paul Klee and Rufino Tamayo on his paintings. This exhibition also reveals the fantastic consistency the two have had with their development over many years. It shows how being an artist is a lifelong commitment.

SYR: What are some of your memories of Stanczak, either as an instructor while you were at the Cleveland Institute of Art or on a personal level? 

JH: Julian Stanczak was an inspiration as a teacher. Our classes were mainly weekly meetings since I was in his Advanced Painting class my fourth year at CIA. Discussions were usually philosophical—especially on artists, color, and art in general. I always enjoyed hearing first-hand stories of his days showing at the legendary Martha Jackson Gallery in New York.

He was very open and friendly to the painters, and we frequently had lunch with him across the street from what was called The Factory studio on Euclid Ave at the Euclid Tavern. He and Barbara would host students at their Seven Hills home after the semester. It was very generous of them. At his house, I was able to see more of his inner workings, including his workshop and woodshop. He was a very generous man with his many gifts. I still think of him as a teacher, and his artworks seem to grow more significant to me as the years pass on, especially his commitment and consistency as a painter.

SYR: As a professor and practicing artist, what did you take away from him?  Did he make an impact on your own work or as a teacher?

JH: As a teacher and practicing artist, I was always impressed by how Mr. Stanczak maintained his career as a painter. He told us he had over fifty solo exhibits and was committed to practicing what he preached. He actively pursued a career in New York, so getting his work beyond Cleveland was very important; this has become important for me as well, and I feel too that artists must pursue larger centers of art if they cannot live in one.

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