A portrait of a frenetic Christopher Walken takes over both the psychic and physical space on the second floor of the old Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea. The actor appears contemplative, his life experience revealed through lines on his face rendered in a volcano of warm reds, yellows and oranges; his facial hair represented through broad brush strokes of greens, browns and blues. His eyes gaze towards what seems to be a far-off place, revealing a range of emotions that ally with the darker end of the spectrum. Simultaneously, however, Walken comes off as endearing, approachable and utterly human in a way that we haven’t seen him before.

This interpretation of the actor is the work of Mexican-born, New York-based artist Alex Hank whose monumental exhibition Roommates is on view through March 25. It finds Walken holding court in the oversized, light-flooded gallery alongside Charlotte Rampling, Agnes Gund, Dree Hemingway and the likeness of about a dozen other notable actors, philanthropists, artists and writers. Together, the portraits represent Hank’s first foray into painting, who is primarily known as a photographer.

“Alex started painting three years ago and locked himself in the studio to explore the medium of painting on canvas. And he did that pretty much on his own,” explains Ana Sokoloff of Sokoloff + Associates, who helped realize the exhibition. She says that Hank learned the craft as a result of the recession when his gallery at the time admitted it was going to be difficult to have exhibitions but that it was a perfect moment to pursue his passion for painting. This was a calling Hank hadn’t even recognized until he was given the blessing to explore it. “Oil is physical and very intimate, just you, the paint and the canvas. There is no technology, no room for mistakes and no cheating. It really is an incredible experience; you almost go into a sort of trance. I did not have this with photography at all and I find this very thrilling.” Hank says about his passion.

He took cues from Soutine, Jenny Saville and others, approaching the medium voraciously and confidently, rendering large-scale ambitious works that fill the room as much as the artist does himself, with his perfectly manicured moustache, towering height and charismatic personality. Uncommon among most painters, Hank uses just one medium-size brush to create brash, skilled and playful compositions, which appear as abstractions if viewed to closely. When the viewer steps back slightly, however, the works become nearly realistic renderings. “They’re not photographic but they end up being very representational. That’s where I find that there’s some magic. It’s from a photograph but it really isn’t,” describes Sokoloff.

Alex Hank Paints Rampling.  Silent from Wet Heat Project, stills from the documentary courtesy of sokoloff + associates, llc

Sokoloff made several visits to her friend’s SoHo studio before committing to facilitating a show. At the time, his studio space also housed a friend who would remark that whenever Hank completed a canvas he would have a new roommate -hence the show’s title.

To further the communal theme , Hank’s subjects are always friends or people who have inspired him. The latter of which he pursued through the website IMDb, which he used to reach out to actors he admired. Hank was surprised at how many said yes. He paints from the waist up Sokoloff says, “because he feels like what he wants to depict is the emotion of the character. And as painterly as they may be, he does manage to capture the inner personality of each of the sitters.” Hank elaborates, “I can’t deny that portraits and people hold a massive fascination for me, a challenge and risk to paint; I absolutely love them. I think no matter what I do in the future, portraiture will always have a place in my work.”

To launch the temporary exhibition, Charlotte Rampling, inspired by her experience with Hank, hosted an intimate dinner, with 11 other sitters in attendance. And while Walken wasn’t able to go, his imposing presence, covering seven feet of canvas, was still very much there in spirit—just the way Hank had intended.

Alex Hank, Roommates, is on view through March 25, every day 11am – 7pm, 548 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10011 (former Dia Center for the Arts). 

Photos from the opening event. © Joe Schildhorn Courtesy of Billy Farrell Agency

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