Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gaylen Hansen

Gaylen Hansen is a painter from eastern Washington, which, unlike coastal Seattle, is largely semi-arid, much of it desert chaparral as you move away from the Cascade mountains. Hansen’s paintings, mostly oil on canvas, reflect that environment in his palette and subject matter, which often include cowboys, horses, cattle, birds, locusts, and other animals. But they are not literal representations of the place. Rather, the pictures tend to bizarre surrealism. According to the Seattle Art Museum (, his category is neo-expressionism, whatever that is.

I liked the pictures because of their humor and imagination, and because of the colors, which recall those of the Washington desert country. For example, he shows an impressionistic trout standing vertically on its nose, on a table next to a steer of the same size also on its nose, and an inverted tulip. Why? No reason, but it’s funny and the colors are great and the rhythm is almost musical. I also like that the canvases are not framed, just nailed or stapled to the wall.

All the pictures have a flat, poster-like, or cartoony quality. In the 30-year retrospective that SAM is currently showing, I didn’t see any rounded, 3-D figures. The pictures also have a certain dreamlike quality and I can see clear echoes of Henri Rousseau, and the surrealism, or postmodernism of Philip Guston, who also developed an eccentric collection of signature images.

In the book sold at the exhibit (which I skimmed but did not buy), the artist acknowledges the influence of cartoonist Gary Larson, but that could be misleading. These are not cartoons, only juxtapositions of images that happen to be humorous because they are recognizable representations of common objects. If they were similarly shaped blobs of color that did not represent objects, the pictures would not be funny, but they would be just as attractive because of the color and composition. Maybe. I’m not sure about that, but I think so.

Hansen’s pictures have been seen all around the world, but he is still not well-known and is often referred to as a regional artist. Maybe this show, which runs through January 6, 2008 at the SAM, will raise his stock. I hope so.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

David Mamet

I first became aware of Mamet as a writer through his 1987 film about the world of con men, House of Games. I was fascinated by the dialog and by Joe Mantegna’s performance. Mamet characters are usually lowlifes, undereducated men who pretend to omniscience. They pronounce eternal truisms about the most banal details of their sordid lives and defend their “positions” on such matters as if they involved the highest moral principle. That makes the dialog seem unself-consciously clever from the characters’ own points of view, humorous to the condescending audience, and well-crafted from a critic’s point of view. Mamet is all about dialog.

I eagerly sought out Glengarry Glen Ross in 1992 and The Spanish Prisoner in 1997 and was not disappointed by either of those films. I even read his short book, Three Uses of the Knife (2000), a series of lectures on the nature of drama. That helped me appreciate his style even better. I also enjoyed Lakeboat, State and Main, and especially, the recent (2005) Edmond, starring William H. Macy in a tremendous acting performance. I haven’t seen all Mamet's films but I have never been disappointed by any of those I have seen.

So it was with high expectations that I went to a local performance of his 1975 play, American Buffalo, produced by Theater Schmeater in Seattle. Directed by Aimee Bruneau, it starred Trick Danneker, Mark Fullerton, and James Venturini as the three actors, the only three characters physically present in the play, although three or four other characters felt like they were also in the play because of how the characters referred to them, a nice feat of playwriting. Donny (Venturini) owns a pawn shop, where all the “action” takes place (and 99.9% of the action is verbal). Bobby (Danneker) is a young junkie who hangs out there, apparently out of loneliness, as does Donny’s friend and poker buddy Teach (Fullerton).

These aimless, shiftless characters have very small horizons. No customers ever appear in the shop, but Donny tells how a customer yesterday bought an American buffalo nickel from him for $50, making him think later that it must have been worth much more than that. Donny recruits the other two into a scheme to rob the customer, who lives nearby, of his presumptive coin collection. They discuss this scheme endlessly for 60 minutes, along with much else, such as the virtues of eating yogurt, how to cheat at cards, and whether the waitress down the street treats them with proper respect. Clearly the men are incapable of even conceptualizing the robbery well, let alone executing it, but that does not stop them from declaring their wisdom on the topic and staking out their points of view on various ancillary matters. It is classic Mamet technique. In the final act, they resolve to forget the whole thing and the play is over.

I am really not a theater person. I see a play once or twice a year, but I have really enjoyed only half a dozen performances in twenty-five years. Why do I keep going? I don’t know. Maybe I just can’t believe that such a popular art form can so consistently escape me.

American Buffalo was a case in point. The production was perfectly competent and I was never actually bored, not to the point that I wanted to walk out. But even while watching it, I kept thinking, what is the point of all this jabbering? Mamet’s dialogic cleverness cannot sustain the full 60 minutes of the play alone. To me, the purpose of a play is to illuminate the human condition in some way. So what was illuminated by these three nattering characters? Uneducated people don’t think clearly? They are not self-aware? Their thinking tends to self-aggrandizement? Okay, maybe, but I think I knew that.

There is a slightly more subtle theme about the nature of male friendship. The characters argue (over nothing), shouting when there is no reason to shout, poking and pushing when there is no reason to poke and push, and finally there is a fight (over nothing) that upsets the furniture and draws blood. But at the end, Teach asks Donny, “You’re not mad at me, are you?” Donny puts aside his crusty authoritarianism for just a moment and answers tenderly, “No.” Despite all the yelling, shouting, threats, insults, shoves and fisticuffs, the men don’t mean anything by it. It’s just the only way they know how to express their friendship. That idea is not new news, but the particular way it was acted out, maybe that was enough to justify the effort. I’m not sure.

I admit there is something magical about sitting with a group of 50 people and having three of them get up and start telling a story; showing a story, actually. It’s a peculiarly human thing to do. Chimpanzees would never do it. Only we can see ourselves in the mirror of the other. So the contextual experience of the art form itself has value, no denying that. But I have a sense of missed opportunity after a play like this.

Maybe it simply was not the most terrific acting. Teach was a hyperventilated kinetic character that seemed cloned from the Kramer character TV's Seinfeld. That was unimaginative, although the director probably realized it would help keep the overall energy level up. Donny was not convincing as a shopkeeper or a criminal and suggested nothing more sinister than a friend’s loudmouth father. Bobby was a cipher. So maybe the problem with me and the theater is that I am too cheap to spring for top drawer tickets to first class productions.

For Seattle theater-goers, Theater Schmeater is at

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mary Lou McCollum

Mary Lou McCollum

The “event” of interest today is that a friend and visual artist has finally put up a web site to show her wares and talents. See Since she turned professional in 1999, I have seen her talent erupt like spring tulips from the earth.

I am especially fond of her “stairs” series. Stairs have a natural geometry suggesting endless variation. Mary Lou paints them in their stark, existential facticity, inviting the viewer to ascend or descend their still silence into who knows what.

Mary Lou sees stairs in many aspects, from de Chirico-like surrealism to sunny, everyday realism. No people are ever shown in a stairs picture, yet stairs are a human artifact, designed expressly to transport people. Taken out of their human context by the artist, they become almost spooky.

I asked Mary Lou once what the stairs mean to her, but she didn’t know. She said only that there was just something compelling about stairs. She felt that she had only begun to scratch the surface of the theme. I am reminded of Richard Dreyfuss’ character in the 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who was obsessed by an image of a mountain plateau without knowing why (it turned out to be a UFO site!).

I also like the chairs series, the interiors, and among the figures, the 9-11 piece. All told, a very nice web site opening!

(The artist and the author en plein air).

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Forest Pumpkins

Each year, a local plant nursery and garden store near Seattle invites children from the Boys and Girls Club to display their pumpkin carvings ( ). The public views the presentation in the evening and donates to the Club, so it’s a fundraiser for the club and a fine community service by the nursery. And it’s a mob scene. Special traffic controls are erected on the highway, and a parking lot a quarter mile a way is commandeered, with a shuttle van from there to the nursery. It’s an extremely popular event. I sneaked through the “Pumpkin Trail” before the official opening, to get a preview of the pumpkin art.

The pumpkin on the right is the Boys and Girls Club logo. Above it a little pumpkin spells out B + G C.

The pumpkins are displayed on stumps and woodpiles along a charming forest trail. It is a very “Northwest” setting.

The one close on the left says "Got Candy?"

Here are some other entries in 2007.

I especially appreciate the "guts" under the plastic knife, and the x's for eyes.

The one on the ground has an American flag cut into it. Is this the American Monarchy? Are these political pumpkins? We can only guess.

Great idea to carve the pumpkin in this orientation and use the stem as a nose.

Pumpkins of the Carribbean, of course.

This being a Northwest forest, and pumpkins being squash, the ground slugs were very happy with the event, and even added to the mood, as with this guy slithering into an eyebrow.

I liked that this one was placed on stones instead of fallen leaves.

It is amazing to see such creativity and artistic talent in such a humble expression.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Philabaum Glass Studio

Tom Philabaum (pictured left) is a glass artist in Tucson. Originally from the Midwest (Illinois, Wisconsin) he has had his own studio in Tucson since 1975. There is a large gallery exhibiting his, and others’ works, and visitors can go right into the studio to watch craftsmen blow glass (they do a lot more than blow into it, actually). His students and assistants use the studio for their own work on the weekends.

It was plenty hot in the glass studio, but what caught my attention more than anything was the lack of safety gear, not even safety glasses. Human flesh sure looks delicate next to a glowing ball of molten glass. These were weekend studio users, not the master himself, of course. I hope they all signed liability waivers.

I was impressed by the glass art objects I saw at the Philabaum gallery. Here in the northwest, glass is omnipresent, but it is usually from Dale Chihuly, the internationally known glass artist from Tacoma, just down the road from Seattle. Chihuly glass is indeed beautiful but it is vastly overexposed here in the Northwest and one becomes inured to it.

Chihuly glass is grand, swirly, and dramatic. His pieces often take organic forms, like the shell-shaped pieces in the ceiling of the “Glass Bridge” at the Chihuly Museum (yes, his own museum), in Tacoma.

My first reaction to many Chihuly pieces is to wonder how they were made. The objects are so spectacular that you are dazzled by the technology and craftsmanship, which is indeed amazing.

But after a while the novelty wears off. You begin to understand that anything that can be done with glass, has been done. It ceases to be glass and becomes just a set of colorful artifacts without context, unconnected to the ancient craft.

The Philabaum work is not spectacular in the same way, just quietly beautiful. It is a different approach. The forms are often simple, elegant, and compact. You can get an appreciation of glass as glass: its texture, color, refraction, transparency, and so on. And because of that, you also appreciate the artist’s craftsmanship and intentionality. The pieces look like they were made by someone who had something in mind, not like they just arrived from Mars.

Not that Philabaum glass isn’t technically sophisticated work. It is. He is known for his “scavo” technique, in which glass chemicals are applied directly to hot glass, which gives the product an ancient, antique look. His work is varied, and to my eyes, refreshing after having seen too much Chihuly.

If the Chihuly museum is the Disneyland of glass art, the Philabaum studio is the MOMA. They’re both good in their own way, but not comparable. Another difference is that you can own a Philabaum piece like the handsome orange vase above for about $700 (see whereas you need many thousands of dollars to even stand near a Chihuly. Small imitations of Chihuly pieces (not even by Chihuly himself) in his museum store are in the thousands. A fair price, perhaps for artifacts from Mars.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Tom Walbank

The 17th Street Market in Tucson is a large, windowless grocery store with a staggering array of Asian foods, and oddly, guitars, and a tiny stage for performers. It was there I found Tom Walbank's trio: Mike Bagesse: Bass, Dimitri Manos: Drums. Walbank is a slender man under 40 from England who plays and sings gritty Delta blues. His repertoire is vast (and all memorized). His voice has the gutty, raspy, emotional intensity of a Louisiana black man. It was startling to hear his English accent when he spoke between tunes.

Tom plays harp (harmonica) hard, fast, with amazing technique. He's right up there with Junior Wells. I’ve never heard anything like it. His guitar work, especially slide, is skilled. Walbank describes his sound as “John Hammond with a John Lee Hooker obsession,” and I think that’s about right, but he’s more than an imitator. His strongest feature is the way he uses his voice as an instrument. It is thoughtful, artistic, and effective. And I think his voice is actually better than Hammond’s.

I bought a CD he was selling that day, Excalibooty! (2002), a mix of live and studio tracks, many written by him and collaborator Doug Smith (guitar). The collection is a lively footstomper that showcases Walbank’s considerable talents, although the sound quality is not as crisp as one would like – as is often the case with “home-made” CDs. According to his web page he has no record label. He is easily good enough to be a big star, but maybe he hasn’t differentiated himself enough. Why would you want to hear Hooker/Muddy Waters imitations when the real things are available? Walbank is an interpreter, but he needs to capitalize on his fine vocal talent before he gets too old, if he wants to hit the big time (which, of course, not everybody wants to do. I don’t know anything about him personally). Excalibooty! is marked “unavailable” on Amazon, but you can sample his sound there from his album, Mudhook, Vol. 2 (2006). He played some of those tunes at the 17th Street Market. Well worth the price.

(17th Street Market: A tough gig)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

County Fair!

I went to the Clallam County Fair in August, and the much larger Puyallup Fair in September. I had never been to a country fair and was curious, and the opportunity presented itself in both cases.

Clallam county is out on the Olympic Peninsula, in Washington and the fair is near the county seat, Port Angeles. This is a fairly remote part of the state that takes some driving to get to, so the Clallam fair had a very “country” feel.

I enjoyed walking through the barns and seeing all the farm animals. As a city person all my life, I had never actually before seen newborn piglets or a sheep being sheared or a competition among home made jams and jellies. I have never actually seen a cow being milked, let alone a goat. If you grew up on a farm, you might think it second nature to wash, rinse, and vacuum a cow as if you were detailing an automobile. Believe me, it was bizarre behavior to my eyes.

I especially enjoyed the kids, who take their animals very seriously. It’s a world I can only imagine, and not very well. I loved their intensity as they willed their dogs to obey, or sat studying the “Dairy Goat Journal,” a publication whose existence I was not aware of. I loved the painstaking felt-tip drawings of “The Bones In A Horse’s Foot,” and posters of “Diseases of Rabbits,” and “What Ferrets Need.”

The Puyallup Fair was at least five times the size, maybe ten times, of the Clallam fair, and included a professional rodeo. Puyallup (pronounced “pyoo-AL-up”) is a town south and east of Tacoma, Washington. Being near to the urban centers, it draws huge crowds.

This fair was enormous and really cannot be experienced all in one day. Some people were scooting about on Segways and by the end of a long afternoon of walking, I could understand why.

It had the same barns full of prize farm animals, but acres more of them and more diverse kinds as well. There was an enormous midway full of rides, building after building full of vendor and demonstration booths highlighting everything from the latest farm equipment to the county Sheriff’s office. There were more kinds of junk food in the offing than I knew even existed, nearly all of it deep fried.

One amazing display was the “Mutton Bustin” contest, in which any child who weighed 60 pounds or less could pay $10 to ride on the back of a woolly sheep as it ran across a dirt field. Most kids fell off immediately after the animal bolted from the gate, but some survived the required six second ride, to the roar of the large crowd. It was the perfect introduction to rodeo riding for children. I survived my entire childhood without the thought ever crossing my mind that it might be desirable to ride on the back of a sheep. This is a world as foreign to mine as if it were aliens from another planet.

I went to the big rodeo, for which I had to buy rather expensive tickets, and it was an amazing thing to see cowboys ride bucking horses and bulls. The crowd was huge, at least ten thousand. Unfortunately, I did not know that loudspeakers play incredibly loud rock and roll music during the rides. Apparently that is supposed to enhance your enjoyment in some way. I did not bring earplugs so I was forced to leave after less than a half hour to protect my hearing. I would have liked to have seen more. Rodeo is a very strange form of entertainment, so raw, so primitive, so direct. Man vs animal. I felt like I was in the Roman Colosseum of the first century. It seemed like nothing had really changed over all those thousands of years.

I liked the Clallam fair better. It seemed more intimate and real. I talked to the girl pictured here about her prizewinning goats. She was very proud of the ribbons she had won. It did not occur to her that actually the goats had won the ribbons.

I think I have had enough county fairs to hold me for a while.